New Jersey recently wrestled with a question of interest to all pet lovers. In McDougall v. Lamm, the plaintiff asked the court to decide what her pet was worth.
The facts of the case are simple, and our law firm frequently responds to calls like this. (We don’t handle them but we are glad to talk to you about it because we love animals, too.) The plaintiff’s dog was attacked by a larger dog, who picked it up, shook it, and dropped it to the ground, dead. The plaintiff saw her dog die. She filed a lawsuit against the attacking dog’s owner, who admitted that he was responsible for her damages. The court had to decide what her damages were.
The opinion touches on a number of issues, including the “zone of danger” rule (whether a plaintiff must be physically injured to recover for emotional damages received by watching another person suffer); the legal value of a dead pet; and whether a human can claim emotional damages for the death of a pet.
A few extra facts—the plaintiff told the court that she purchased her half-poodle/half-maltese nine years earlier for $200.00, and that she believed she could purchase a similar new puppy today for about $1,400.00. She of course testified that the dog was loved, knew many tricks, and was with her much of the day, particularly because she did not work out of the house.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s emotional damages claim, noting that New Jersey did not recognize such a claim in the context of a pet’s death. The court rendered a verdict of $5,000, noting that the replacement cost alone would not compensate the plaintiff for the “loss of a well-trained pet.” Even though the court stated that it did not grant emotional damages, I think that’s what it did here. A quick internet review shows that these dogs live an average of 14-18 years, so this dog had another four to eight years of life. It cost $200.00. The purchase of a brand new dog, though untrained, would cost $1,400.00. I bet she could get a trained maltipoo for $2,000 without any trouble. It seems to me that the court awarded her $3,000 in emotional distress damages, without directly calling it that. Now, if the court believed that emotional distress damages were legally proper, maybe it would have awarded more. Sadly, it ruled (as did the appellate court), that such emotional damages were improper.
One of the reasons the court opted against extending these emotional damage claims to the loss of a pet is that those claims are fairly limited, even with regard to humans. In general, in New Jersey, you can recover emotional damage claims for family members and fiancés. Almost everything else is out. Allowing a claim for pets, the court believed, would be inconsistent with that limitation and, the court argued, it would be difficult to determine which pet-human relationships were worthy of such compensation (that point seems a little ridiculous—if the relationship is a close one, as shown by evidence, it could be compensated for). Though, it does make sense that if a live-in nanny cannot recover for emotional damages resulting from the death of her charge, a pet-human relationship might be out, too.
How Does Maryland View The Value Of Pets?
Maryland’s position on this is not unlike New Jersey’s. Animals are considered property, and their loss is compensable as with other property—by the fair market value. Maryland’s rules state that “[i]n the case of the death of a pet, the fair market value of the pet before death and the reasonable and necessary cost of veterinary care; and (ii) [i] the case of an injury to a pet, the reasonable and necessary cost of veterinary care” (Maryland Cts. & Jud. Proc. §11-110). Maryland also limits the total recovery to $7,500.00.
Maryland does not recognize emotional damages with respect to pets, though a bill was put through in 2002 to allow up to $25,000 in non-economic damages in some situations of intentional injury to a pet. Sadly, that bill did not pass.
The Animal Legal and Historical Center provides some cases around the country on point to this issue. This one from Kentucky reads pretty well, but most of the cases cited involve damage amounts that are much lower than I would have awarded if I were the judge (all seem to be bench trials).