How much is a dog worth?
"Easy," says the dog owner. "My dog is priceless."
Not so fast, say the courts, which deal in terms of economic value. Most pets couldn't be sold for much, if anything. The benefits a pet provides—companionship, laughter, security—are noneconomic and unique.
Nevertheless, some states allow pet owners who have lost a valued companion to collect only the "market value" of the dog—a wholly inadequate measure. In other states, a court may let a dog owner recover damages for "sentimental value," "intentional infliction of emotional distress," or "mental suffering." These legal theories are all attempts to compensate owners for the hard-to-quantify, emotional loss they feel when they lose a pet.
Depending on the circumstances and state law, a dog owner may be able to convince a court to order the person responsible to pay for:
When a dog is injured, the person responsible for the injury can be found legally liable for the veterinarian's bills.
Generally, courts allow the owner to be reimbursed only for "reasonable" treatment. A dog owner probably can't expect to recover $10,000 for extensive surgery of an 16-year-old dog if the veterinarian says the dog is likely to die soon anyway. But just because a dog is advanced in years doesn't mean that expensive treatment is never justified. In 1988, a New York court approved an award of $300 for antibiotics and suturing of an aged, arthritic, and partially deaf dog that had been injured by another dog.
If your dog is injured, keep records of all bills for treatment, medication, and hospitalization to use during negotiations or at trial. You probably won't be paid back for the time you took off from work to care for the dog or take it to the vet.
All dogs have a market value—that is, a price they would bring if sold on the open market. That may not be much, but whatever it is, the dog's owner is entitled to it if a dog has been killed. Some courts award the dog owner the amount it would cost to replace the dog, instead of the dog's market value. This replacement value is likely to be a larger amount.
Factors to be considered in computing market value include the dog's:
Here are two examples of how that translates into dollars in the real world:
Surely an owner's affection for and attachment to a dog—not the market value—is the greater loss when a dog is killed. Some states have laws explicitly recognizing this fact. Rhode Island, for example, allows evidence not only of the market value of an animal but also its "actual value to the owner." Tennessee allows someone whose pet is killed by the negligence of someone else to recover up to $5,000 in damages as compensation for the loss of the pet's "society, companionship, love and affection." (R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-23-1; Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-17-403.)
In the other states, it's up to the courts. Some do not allow sentimental value to be considered; they stick to market value. A Minnesota court, for example, cited an 1890 court ruling that because pets are property, market value is the proper measure of the owner's loss. (Soucek v. Banham, 524 N.W.2d 478 (Minn. App. 1994).) Other courts give up because of the difficulty in putting a dollar amount on the loss: "It is impossible to reduce to monetary terms the bond between man and dog," said one, limiting a dog owner's recovery to the cost of veterinary treatment. (Zager v. Dimilia, 524 N.Y.S.2d 968 (Vill. Ct. 1988).)
Some courts, however, have been willing to give it a shot. In a veterinary malpractice case in California, a jury awarded the owner of a dog $10 for the dog's market value—and another $30,000 for its special value. California law allows such an award if an item has "peculiar value" to the owner, and the person who harmed it knew that fact. ("California dog owner awarded $39,000 in veterinary malpractice suit," American Veterinary Medical Association News (April 15, 2004).
An Illinois court compared the loss of a dog to the loss of other unique and irreplaceable items, such as family heirlooms or photographs. Because these objects, which are not bought and sold, have no meaningful market value, the court ruled, damages are measured by their "actual value to the owner." (Jankoski v. Preiser Animal Hospital, Ltd., 510 N.E. 2d 1084 (Ill. App. 1987).) Other courts reject this reasoning. (For example, see Daughen v. Fox, 539 A.2d 858 (Pa. Super. 1988).)
Evidence of special value can be as simple as testimony about the importance of the dog in the owner's life. If the owner is cut off from family or friends, lives alone, or is unusually dependent on a dog, a court is more likely to figure in sentimental value.
Some courts have recognized that "a pet is not just a thing but occupies a special place somewhere in between a person and a piece of personal property....To say it is a piece of personal property and no more is a repudiation of our humaneness." (Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital, Inc., 415 N.Y.S.2d 182, 97 Misc. 2d 530 (1979).)
This change in attitude is shown by courts' willingness to let people sue for the mental anguish they suffer when they lose a pet because of malicious or extremely reckless acts. The legal theory is similar to the one that lets people sue when a child or spouse is injured; they can sue not only for lost income, but for the emotional anguish the death triggers.
The law in this area is still developing, and its boundaries are unclear. Some states' courts (West Virginia's, for example) do not allow claims for mental suffering. Other states impose various limitations. In some places, to recover for mental anguish, the person must see the injury take place, or suffer physical injury, or require medical treatment. The rules change constantly as courts refine—or, just as often, confuse—them.
Generally, people can sue for two types of mental distress: first, the shock and distress caused by seeing an accident or mistreatment, and second, the grief and long-term effect the loss has on their lives. The more outrageous the conduct of the person being sued, the larger the monetary award is likely to be. Proving mental suffering is not always easy. But the person suing can testify about how he felt at the death of the pet and how the loss disrupted his life. If the person sought medical treatment or psychological counseling, that will strengthen the claims.
The best way to get a feel for what the rules are is to look at some actual cases:
When a court orders someone who injured or killed a dog to pay the dog's owner, that money is intended to compensate the owner for the economic and emotional loss, not to punish the wrongdoer. If the actions were outrageous or deliberate, however, the judge or jury in a civil lawsuit may assess "punitive damages" against the wrongdoer. Punitive damages are like a fine, except that the money is paid to the other side in a lawsuit, not to the government. They are added on to the amount the dog owner gets as compensation for the loss of the dog.
Punitive damages are given only when someone has caused injury intentionally or recklessly. They may be especially appropriate in animal cases, where compensatory damages are likely to be low. As a Minnesota court pointed out, if compensatory damages don't make it worthwhile to sue, the wrongdoing will go unpunished unless punitive damages are given. (Wilson v. City of Eagan, 297 N.W.2d 146 (Minn. 1980).)
Here are some examples:
Lawsuits against a government agency. Many states do not allow punitive damages against a city government unless a state law specifically authorizes it. Individual public officers, however, are liable for punitive damages just like other individuals are. (Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983).)