by Barry B. Burtis
How valuable is your pet? Most pet owners would answer that question quickly and, I suspect, in much the same way. They would talk about the importance of their pet's friendship, saying they consider their pet to be a member of their family and of immense value to them. They would report how much pleasure and how many benefits they get from the relationship they share with their four-legged companion.
Such a response is all well and good, but what if you were pressed to be more specific - to actually place a monetary figure on the pet's value? Most would agree that would make it a much more difficult question to answer. Yet that is exactly what our courts are sometimes asked to do. Animals are legally considered to be property. For loss or harm to property, economic damages are usually the fair market replacement of that property.
However, last November, a Texas appeals court made a ruling that appears to challenge that principle. In that recent case, Avery, an 8 year old mixed-breed dog escaped from his owner's yard and was picked up by animal control in Fort Worth, Texas. The owners could not afford to pay the retrieval fines that day, but were told they could come back eight days later and take him home. When they returned, they discovered that the dog had been euthanized three days earlier. The owners sued the shelter employee who authorized the euthanasia and sought to recover Avery's sentimental value. The trial judge, relying on Texas case law dismissed the lawsuit. However, the 2nd District Court of Appeals disagreed and ruled that the owners of the dog accidentally euthanized could be awarded damages based on the animal's sentimental value. The case is now back before a lower court for trial.
Although we may think the United States is a more litigious society than ours, such issues are ones that are not far removed from ones our own legal system may some day need to address. Hence, consideration and discussion of such topics is, I believe, good for us to do.
The awarding of economic damages, by the courts, seeks to reimburse people for direct monetary losses they experience due to harm they suffered. Well, in this case, to replace a mixed breed terrier would not be difficult or expensive to do. Noneconomic damages seek to convert non-monetary harm into monetary form so that harm can be mitigated with money. Our system of law does not usually award non-economic damages for harm to property, including animals. In the case discussed, non-economic damages could cover the sentimental value of the pet, as well as the pain, suffering and mental anguish caused to the owner by its loss. If such damages are awarded, it would likely be much more than just terrier replacement costs. Indeed such a settlement could set quite a new direction in court proceedings involving pets.
We have quite a wonderful relationship with those animals we call pets. Anything that disrupts that unique and sometimes quite complex relationship that exists has every possibility of ending up before our courts. It is hardly surprising that is so. Whether it involves tragic circumstances of loss like those discussed here, the amount of malpractice insurance veterinarians must carry or new wrinkles in divorce or separation proceedings, there are many possible ramifications of any shift in society's thinking on the subject of a pet's true monetary value. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca