Aug 18, 2009
In keeping with controversial topics this week, I found a story out of Virginia about a man who is suing his former domestic partner for emotional distress after the death of his Chihuahua.
In a nutshell…here’s the story: Jeffrey Nanni and Maurice Smith were former domestic partners. Two years ago, Smith allegedly beat their 12 lb Chihuahua with a wooden board. Smith was found guilty of assault and battery as well as cruelty to animals in connection with this event. An autopsy of the dog found that he died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Nanni, who is a paralegal, maintains that he continues to suffer emotional distress and should be compensated for that. He is asking for no less than $15,000, which is the minimum amount that will ensure the case will be heard in this particular court (Arlington Circuit Court).
So…it certainly is a sad case and one that should have never happened (Nanni evidently picked up the dog as he and Smith here fighting and Smith attempted to hit him with the board). Smith served 10 days in jail and was on probation for a year.
But, my bigger concern is the precedent that this case could set. Currently, in almost every state, emotional damages are not allowed to be collected by pet owners. Most states simply allow the owner to collect the “fair market value” of the pet. A recent case in New Jersey though did set another precedent stating that a pet’s “special subjective value” needs to be considered in custody cases. This has now opened up the doors that will move pets from “property” or chattel to another classification that we don’t even have yet (sentient property?).
Another case in California sided against an attorney who was suing a veterinarian for wrongful death of her Maltese. The court stated that pets were considered property and you can’t get damages for emotional distress or loss of companionship with property. Furthermore, parents can’t sue doctors accused of medical malpractice after the death of their child and expect damages for emotional distress either. In case after case across the United States, the courts normally find that there is no basis for damages based on emotional distress because (again) “pets are property”.
There are a few states that have broken away (Idaho, Kentucky, Florida, Alaska, New York, New Jersey and Hawaii) from this traditional view of pets as property, but they are still reluctant to award substantial damages based on emotional distress. Instead, the “intrinsic value” of the pet is calculated.
There is no doubt that pets are special to almost every one of us and we cherish their special value…but how do you adequately put a price tag on that in the event of the pet’s death? Should purebreds be worth more? Should dog owners get more money than cat owners? Should it depend on how much money you spent at the veterinary office in wellness care, etc?
The scary thing about this case is that a jury who awards Nanni a substantial amount of money will open the floodgates to a landslide of wrongful death lawsuits. Veterinarians will be forced to carry larger amounts of malpractice insurance simply because the insurance carriers won’t want to take these cases to court…they will settle out of court in order to “make things go away”. If veterinarians have to pay more for insurance, you can be very certain that those costs will be passed on in the forms of higher medical invoices.
And, as many here at MedHelp know, there are people who have a hard time paying for veterinary expenses, despite the fact that it is a true bargain when compared to human medicine. But rest assured, a case like this that sets a precedent will cause veterinary costs to increase.
So, what is the answer? Do we have a new classification for pets beyond property but short of human life? Should you be able to get emotional damages after the loss of your pet?