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Damages for Dogs?

When we lose a loved one to a tortfeasor's negligent or reckless conduct, the law compensates us for our monetary and emotional losses. But what if our loved one has four paws and fur? That's the issue that will be decided in the case of a dog shot in Vermont (Fox News 12/7/06). The case involves a lawsuit by Denis and Sarah Scheele for lost companionship and emotional distress that resulted when defendant Larry Dustin shot and killed their dog Shadow with a pellet gun while the couple was vacationing in Vermont. Dustin plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and paid $400 in damages to the Scheeles; their suit seeks an additional $4,000.

According to the news story, courts take different views on whether to recognize a cause of action for emotional distress related to loss of a pet. Courts in states such as California, Tennessee and Kentucky award some damages above the "market value" of the animals to owners who have lost their pets to cruelty, but other states reject these claims. Animal rights groups are also working the legislative process to help pave the way for legislation that would recognize a cause of action for loss of pets.

Some oppose a new cause of action for policy reasons. From the story:

Victor Schwartz, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon and co-author of the Pepperdine law review article, "Non-Economic Damages in Pet Litigation: The Serious Need to Preserve a Rational Rule," is an animal lover. But Schwartz says courts siding on the side of emotion are risking heading down a slippery slope, since veterinarians, pet boarders, and animal medicine manufacturers will be plagued with lawsuits and liability insurance will skyrocket.

Moreover, according to Schwartz, many states allow suits for punitive damages where pets are intentionally harmed to deter such conduct.

In any event, no matter which side you come down on in this debate, here's a story about one amazingly heroic dog that's sure to make you appreciate the generosity, loyalty and courage of our four-legged friends.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 7, 2006 at 07:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

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