Court case further tests emotional damages claims

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Mar 01, 2012

NATIONAL REPORT— A lawsuit in Clearwater, Fla., is calling for the court to award $15,000 in emotional damages due to alleged negligence.

In fact, pet owner Liza Baceols sued a veterinary practice after her dog chewed off his tail and died while at the hospital. While the recent week-long trial ended after the jury deadlocked, some officials say it signals a change in the perceived status of pets in our society.

Matthew Liedman, staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said this is one of many legal cases where people may be beginning to view animals as family members.

"Unfortunately, the law is slow to catch up with changing societal norms," Liedman says.

While the courts still view animals as property, Liedman says that some judges are beginning to look at pets as a different type of property, "special property."

"The trend seems to be that the courts are more and more willing to break the old rules and compensate for the animals involved," he says. "While litigation for emotional damages has not been very effective, some courts have been compensating for animals over and above the worth of the animals. There is more sympathy for the pet owners."

An American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) study in 2007 showed that 50 percent of Americans viewed their pets as family, 48 percent saw them as companions, and just 2 percent felt they were property.

So, where does that leave veterinarians?

"Ideally, it will have the same effect on veterinarians that it has had in traditional court cases," Liedman says. "Hopefully, they will be more conscientious and live up to the standards of care of other professionals, which will benefit the profession and benefit animals and their guardians."

As long as veterinarians are not negligent in the delivery of care, Liedman does not see a problem for the profession.

"Given the trend in animal law, the courts are taking the human-animal bond more seriously," he says. "There is no question that people do feel real emotion for their pets ,and injuries deserve to be compensated by the courts. Whether the law will catch up with society is anyone's guess."