Phil Goldberg: Awarding emotional damages no way to love our pets

More than 50 years after Patti Page sang “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” a battle has broken out among pet-loving people about how much a doggie or other pet is worth in the courtroom. The cases pull at heartstrings, with owners asking for their pain and suffering, emotional distress and other types of emotion-based damages when their pets suffer harm.

But what’s best for our pets?

A broad coalition of pet welfare and ownership groups support compensating owners for pet injuries, but not for the owners’ emotional harm. Pets do not benefit from these awards. Allowing them, though, would have major adverse impacts. If tens of thousands of dollars in emotion-based damages were available any time a pet is harmed, the cost of every pet’s health care, pet products and other pet services would go up to offset threatened or actual litigation.

There is only so much people can spend on their pets. When pets do not get the care they need, they suffer in pain or, worse, are euthanized.

Last month, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals stepped into this debate. The case involved a police officer who went to a Frederick County home to serve a couple’s adult son with legal papers. When the father answered the door, his dogs were barking. As he started taking them to the backyard, Brandi, a large Labrador retriever, got out and headed toward the officer. The officer backed up, but Brandi continued. The officer said he feared for his safety and shot Brandi, who survived.

The couple sued the officer. A jury awarded them $200,000 for their emotional harm, among other damages. Given the debate over damages in pet injury cases, the Court of Special Appeals was careful to explain that it was only allowing this award to stand in the “non-pet damages” part of the case. The court stated that the availability of emotional harm damages had nothing to do with Brandi, but the jury’s finding that the state, acting through the officer, violated the couple’s constitutional rights — harms for which emotion-based damages are allowed regardless of whether the officer shot Brandi or “an expensive china vase sitting on the mantel.”

The court noted that, in Maryland, damages in pet cases are set by statute. Pets are considered the property of their owners, and traditionally property damages are limited to market value. In 1989, the General Assembly expanded available damages to include reasonable and necessary costs of veterinary care (up to a set limit), so that owners could provide pets with treatment from a wrongful injury with an expectation that the costs could be recovered.

This statute does not include emotion-based damages. The court explained that the General Assembly decided against putting juries in the position of subjectively valuing people’s pets. Many people cherish their pets, and the court concluded that the General Assembly did not want juries making distinctions between pets, for example, on “sentimental terms” or whether a dog came “from a family with young children.”

The court then made clear that the availability of emotional harm damages in this case could not to be generalized to “veterinary malpractice cases, product liability cases” or other actions. This acknowledgement went far to alleviate concerns of the pet welfare community.

Overall, the issue of emotion-based damages in pet litigation has now been litigated in 35 states. The cases have arisen under a variety of circumstances — from police actions, as here, to car accidents, veterinary malpractice and pet-on-pet aggression, among others. Many courts have expressly appreciated the love owners and pets give each other and have broadly concluded that these damages are not available for negligent injury to pets.

Maryland and other states have carefully limited when a person can seek emotion-based damages. Injuries to pets, as with human best friends and cherished possessions, do not fit in these restrictive categories. For our pets’ sake, courts should continue to stay this course.

Phil Goldberg is a partner with Shook Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. He represented pet welfare and ownership groups in filing a friend of the court brief in this case before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. He has written extensively on damages in pet injury cases. 

One comment

  1. Thanks for writing this article. I guess I am just wondering how it is that awarding emotional damages for injuries to pets would drive up the cost of vet care and pet products? I understand if you allowed emotional damages for vet malpractice or pet toy/food product liability.

    But if someone comes up to me when I’m walking my dog and hurts or kills my dog just to be mean, how would allowing me to emotional damages hurt the pet industry? I don’t understand the relationship.

    Thanks again for the article, would love to learn more about this topic in general and your point of view!

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