A Dog's Worth...Recovering Non-Economic Damages for the Loss of a Pet

“How much is that doggie in the window. The one with the waggly tail. How much is that doggies in the window. I do hope that doggie’s for sale.”
Recorded by Patti Paige, 1952
Girl with Dog Pet Damages

If you ask most dog owners what their dog is worth, they would likely answer “priceless.”  In fact, a study by Kelton Research found that 81% of those surveyed consider their dogs to be true family members, on a par with their children. The death of a pet can be devastating to the human companion, especially if the death is the result of a negligent or intentional act.

But in the legal world, a dog's worth has been, for the most part, limited. 

Historically, the recovery for the death of a companion animal has been limited to a loss of property claim with damages calculated by the fair market value of the animal. For those of us with mixed breeds or older pets, that would mean they are literally worth nothing. 

This area of law is changing however. Some courts have allowed juries to base a pet’s economic worth on other factors, such as special training, original purchase price, and cost to replace. These damages are known as “actual” or “intrinsic” damages.

For instance, in Jankowski v. Preiser Animal Hospital, Ltd., the plaintiffs sued their veterinarian and animal hospital, alleging the defendants negligently administered anesthesia during a diagnostic treatment which resulted in the death of their pet German Shepard. The plaintiffs complained that as a result of the negligence, they were deprived of the companionship, loyalty, security, and friendship of their dog. The trial court dismissed the case, ruling the law did not permit a pet owner to recover for loss of companionship. On appeal, the court agreed with that ruling, stating that pets are an item of personal property. However, the court also recognized that some items of personal property have no market value, such as pets, heirlooms, photographs, and trophies. The court held that where an object which has no value is destroyed, the measure of damages to be applied is the value to the owner. 

Other state courts have recognized the sentimental value of pets to their owners. In LaPorte v. Associated Independents, Inc. the Florida Supreme Court upheld a $1000 punitive damage award to the owner of Heidi, a miniature dachshund who was killed when a garbage collector, maliciously, and with extreme and utter indifference threw a garbage can at her. The court held that the affection of a master for his dog is a very real thing and that the malicious destruction of a pet should allow for recovery of damages beyond the value of the animal.

However, a Florida appeals court has refused to expand the law to allow emotional distress damages in a veterinary malpractice case where there was “no impact.” The impact rule requires some type of physical impact prior to recovery of emotional distress damages. In Kennedy v. Bayas, the owner of a basset hound sought emotional damages for veterinary malpractice in the treatment of his dog. The appeals court refused to allow the damages, stating that it would not abandon the impact rule and allow emotional damages in veterinary malpractice cases.  

Many state courts have been reluctant to allow non-economic damages.

Cat and Dog Pet Damages

The courts have instead deferred to their respective legislatures to step in and enact laws on damages in pet cases. Tennessee as the first such state to enact legislation. Known as the T-Bo Act, the Tennessee legislation allows for non-economic damages for the negligent, intentional or unlawful act of another or animal of another. It limits recovery to cases involving cats or dogs and the cap on damages is $5000. 

Illinois’ statute limits claims to cases in which the defendant subjected the animal to aggravated cruelty or torture, or engaged in bad faith which led to the animal’s death or injury. The law applies to any a animal to which the plaintiff has a right to ownership, not just cats and dogs. Therefore a horse owner would have an avenue of recovery. However, damages are limited to $25,000 for each act of cruelty. Attorney’s fees and costs can be recovered under the statute.

Connecticut then followed suit with its own statute, but it is much more limited as to recovery. It only allows recovery in situations where the act was intentional and is limited to cats and dogs. The statute does not allow for emotional damages for owners, but instead identifies types of economic damages that may be recovered and allows for punitive damages. Attorney’s fees are allowed for a prevailing human companion. 

Other states have followed with their own legislation. California and Montana have enacted statutes which allow for exemplary damages in cases of willful or gross negligence. Maryland allows for compensatory damages in cases where the defendant tortuously causes death or injury to a pet. The damages are limited to $7500.

Bills have been introduced in many other states over the years, but have had little success. Legislators appear to be reluctant to change the status of pets as property and potentially open the flood gates for more litigation in our court system.

If you or your pet have been injured as a result of the negligence or cruelty of others, contact The Law Office of Catherine J. Merrill, P.A.