When the bond breaks

More legislators are proposing laws to allow emotional damages in pet cases
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Apr 01, 2009

National Report — Pets die every day, but when it happens on the veterinarian's table should the doctor be forced to pay for the pet owner's pain and suffering?

Legislators in several states think so, and law schools are churning out more animal-rights-focused attorneys who tend to agree with them.

Since 2005, several states have seen a number of bills that propose changing laws to award non-economic damages when a companion animal is wrongfully injured or killed.

In 2007, the legislatures in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., saw such bills introduced, but none made it to law. Vermont's Supreme Court is still considering a case that would award damages of emotional distress and loss of companionship in malpractice cases.

This year, similar bills were introduced in Hawaii and New York.

A law proposed Jan. 21 in the New York State Assembly would offer pet owners compensation for the value of their pet, as well as damages for the loss of companionship and comfort, in cases of intentional death, injury or negligence. The bill offers no cap to the amount of damages that could be awarded, but damages recovered for an injury would have to be put into a trust for the animal's care, and damages for a death must be distributed to a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of animals.

Immediately sent to committee, the bill has not progressed since it was introduced. It's been the same for similar bills introduced in New York since 2002: once it goes to committee, it doesn't return to the floor.

Hawaii's Senate Bill 73 was the most specific: It would remove domestic animals from the classification of "property" or "material objects," allowing pet owners to recover up to $25,000 for serious emotional distress suffered as a result of injury or loss of a pet. It was introduced Jan. 23, but Richard Rapoza, communications director for the Hawaii Senate, says the bill has been referred to a Senate committee and is unlikely to return to the floor. But he thinks it's only a matter of time before the bill reappears and eventually passes.

"I think there are specific people in town who feel very strongly about it and will have it introduced again," he says, adding a bill introduced three years ago came close to passing. "I can understand where veterinarians are concerned. On the other hand, veterinarians benefit greatly from the bond between people and their pets. It would be fitting for them also to recognize that bond and offer some compensation in a case of negligence. I don't think it's fair to have it both ways."

The debate

One Hawaiian in favor of pushing for the issue's continued introduction to the Legislature is Honolulu attorney Emily Gardner, who specializes in animal-law interests.

"Pets often are considered property under many state laws, and many services and products market to pet owners for their best friend. All the advertising is targeted to consumers, recognizing pets aren't just a piece of property," she says. "Veterinarians are well aware of this and use that information to their advantage for higher veterinary fees. Veterinary costs have tripled in the last 10 years because people are willing to pay for it."

More pet owners are showing interest in pursuing lawsuits against companion-animal industries like pet-food companies and veterinary medicine, Gardner says. And professions that bank on the emotional attachment people have with their pets can't deny that attachment when it comes time to pay the piper.

Practice owner Celina Hatt takes offense to this school of thought.

"I don't see that as an accurate accusation," says the Ewa Beach, Hawaii, practitioner. "Usually vets are the last to charge a lot without justifying it. It is expensive, but I think it's expensive because there's not a lot of insurance to pay for these things. My concern is that it's a very subjective, emotional bill. It's very hard to measure emotional distress."