How Much Is Your Dog's Life Worth?

  1. How Much Is Your Dog's Life Worth?
    Flurry of Pet-Food Suits Spurs
    Effort to Boost Legal Value
    Of Animal Companions

    Most people consider their pet priceless. But in civil law, at least, pets are usually seen as property -- akin to a toaster or TV set -- worth only their market value. Now, amid the incidences of tainted pet food tied to animal deaths and the subsequent rash of lawsuits against pet-food makers, there's a push to put a higher value on a pet's life.

    Lawyers, animal-rights activists and pet owners are arguing that most state laws dealing with pets are outmoded and fail to consider that pets play the role of companions in today's society. They say pet owners whose animal is injured or killed should receive compensation not only for vet bills and a replacement animal -- but for emotional distress as well. While legal experts say big payouts for emotional damages are unlikely in the pet-food cases, the lawsuits and large number of pets affected could accelerate a growing trend to give pets more recognition under the law.

    The litigation could be "a first step towards expanding liability when it comes to having to pay emotional damages for loss of specific animal," says James Kainen, associate professor of property law at Fordham University School of Law.

    More than 50 cases seeking class-action status have been filed in recent weeks in response to pet illnesses and deaths linked to tainted pet food. Concerns began in March, when Ontario-based Menu Foods Inc. announced a widespread pet food recall. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that wheat gluten, imported from China and used as a protein source and binding agent in the products, was contaminated with melamine, an industrial substance with no approved use in food. The agency has also found melamine in pet food containing rice protein concentrate, and recently began testing animal feed and human-food additives for melamine contamination.

    Recalls have now spread to more than 100 brands. The FDA has said at least 16 animal deaths resulted from the tainted food, but said many more pets may have been affected. A spokeswoman for Banfield, The Pet Hospital, a national chain of veterinary hospitals, said it has confirmed six additional deaths. This week, Menu Foods filed suit against its supplier of the wheat gluten, ChemNutra Inc. of Las Vegas, alleging breach of contract and other violations. ChemNutra said it had no comment on the suit.

    Even before the recent pet-food scare, legal experts say there has been a growing legal recognition of pets' value. Today 42 states have made cruelty to animals a felony, compared with seven states that had felony provisions before 1994, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. In 2000, Tennessee created a statute allowing noneconomic damages if a pet is killed or injured by negligence, though caps them at $5,000. And recent civil judgments have nodded to people's emotional attachment to their pets: A default judgment last year in Washington state awarded a man $50,000 for the intrinsic value of his cat, Milton, and an additional $25,000 for emotional distress after Milton was killed by a neighboring dog that had a history of aggressive behavior.

    Animal-rights groups say that most animal law is based on a long-ago era when pets didn't have the vaunted role they now enjoy in many households -- and when Americans didn't spend nearly as much money on them. In 2006, Americans spent nearly $39 billion on food, veterinary care, supplies and other services for their pets, up 35% from 2001, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, an industry group in Greenwich, Conn.

    Yet except in the case of extreme cruelty or malice, owners who have lost a pet through some type of negligence usually recover little more than the animal's market value in civil suits. The market value ranges anywhere from $10 to several hundred dollars, depending on the animal's breed, training and other factors. This doesn't adequately reflect the emotional value pets have for people, says Joyce Tischler, founding director of the Animal League Defense Fund, an advocacy group in Cotati, Calif.

    The league has drafted a brief to be filed with the lawsuits that argues, among other things, that "human beings form intense emotional bonds with companion animals and are very likely to feel genuine and serious emotional distress when those animals are harmed."

    One such person is Pamela Newman, a 55-year-old former factory worker who lives alone. When her cat ate some of the food that had been recalled, Ms. Newman said the animal began to waste away from kidney failure, dropping 18 pounds in a week and losing its hair. Ms. Newman joined a class-action lawsuit and believes she should receive more than just money for vet bills and the market value of the cat if it dies. "She's not a pet, she's family," she says. "She's everything to me."

    The suit seeking to represent Ms. Newman and several hundred other pet owners against Menu Foods alleges, among other things, fraud and negligence, and seeks economic and punitive damages as well as damages for emotional suffering, says lead counsel and Chicago attorney Jay Edelson. He points out that in some cases, the law recognizes some property -- such as a family heirloom -- as having more than just market value, and he will argue the same for pets. Menu Foods declined to comment on the lawsuits.

    Most civil judgments still don't award emotional damages when a pet is injured or killed. A more typical case is that of a pet owner who sued a groomer in Austin, Texas, in 2003, after her miniature schnauzer escaped from the facility and was run over by traffic. She was initially awarded $10,000 for mental anguish and distress and $10,000 for loss of companionship in a default judgment, but the award was reversed by an appellate court, giving the owner just $500 for the replacement value of the dog, as well as awards for its training and attorney fees.

    "The law is going through this painful transition in a patchwork fashion," says Kristina Hancock, chairwoman of Animal Law Committee of the American Bar Association's Tort, Trial and Insurance Practice Section. "A lot of judges are treating [pets] in a no-man's land in between property and humans."

    Legal experts say it is unlikely plaintiffs will get large amounts of money in emotional damages in the class-action suits, due to slim precedence and the difficulties of assessing the emotional damage of individual clients. The economic damages, however, could be doubled or tripled if conduct is found to be egregious, they say.

    While animal-rights advocates and pet owners say the law shouldn't put animals on par with humans, they are calling for some middle ground.

    "Pets are not the equivalent of a child -- I understand that," says Ben DeLong, who says his cat suffered kidney problems due to tainted pet food and died last month. "But there is a significant emotional investment my wife and I have in our animals."

    Some of the steps being taken that provide more legal protection for pet owners:
    • Cruelty to animals is now a felony in 42 states.

    • A 2000 Tennessee statute allows compensation for loss of a pet's companionship and affection.

    • Civil judgments increasingly acknowledge the emotional value of pets to humans.
  2. I guess I need to be careful here because I really don't want to offend people but I have a very strong feeling about this.
    I will start by saying that I don't have children so perhaps I don't understand some of the issues that surround raising a child.
    However, I do have a dog and have had pets for a long, long time. I don't think that anyone that considers themselves a "true" animal lover can say that they are not "part of the family". Having said that, I find it impossible to associate some insignificant $$ amount to their welfare and well-being.
    Many of us have paid for expensive surgeries and treatments and changed our lifestyles to accommodate our pets. To me this counts for more than just the pricetag that came on the animal.
    What about Guide Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Show Dogs and just the plain old family dog (like my baby) that deserves more.
    Perhaps society needs to realize that to some people, pets are all they have.
    Sorry in advance!
  3. All of my life, I've had dogs and I think this is going a bit far. If someone kills/injures your pet they should pay for the bill and if you decide to get another dog, but just start adding on additional money for stress and what not is just :wtf: . I hope no one who has a mixed breed and/or dog from the shelter gets offended, but I tend to notice cases where the owners sue for ridiculous amounts usually have dogs that did not cost a lot of money. I just don't see how you can go to court with a dog that you got from a shelter for like 200 and really think you're going to walk out with 20,000 or for that matter 2,000. I think it should be like a car. Say you get a car for 800 and someone totals it. You can't go to court and demand 8,000. I don't know, I just find it funny in the cases I've heard of, and seen personally, the people who tend to have lower priced dogs tend to want huge settlements.
  4. There are a lot of problems with damages for the loss of the pets. It sounds nice, but I would hate to see the court system flooded with lawsuits. Even people who didn't love their animals would be saying they did if they thought it would get them some money. I myself own a rescued cat, so I would not see any money if she were killed. Yes, that is upsetting. On the other hand, if someone's dog ran out in the street and I hit it, I would hate to 1)get sued 2)have to pay an attorney a lot of money 3)have to prove I was not negligent and 4)potentially have to pay obscene amounts of money. The only way I think this could work is if damages were capped and only allowed for reckless behavior.
  5. I totally agree with your statements. I could not put an amount on a loved one.
  6. i agree with you....
    my pup is like my child. most things i do is for her best interest....

    all i can say is...
    for those people who dont understand others' emotional distress for losing loved ones (in this case their pets)... i hope karma is going to bite them in the ass....:yucky:
  7. there is no amount of money in this universe that could take the place of my dogs....

    It is impossible to even imagine....

  8. ?????? Your post puzzles me...

    It doesn't matter if you rescued your dog from a rescue group for $100, rescued a stray dog for free or paid $40k for one from a breeder...their lives are all invaluable.

    Here's something to think about: children's lives are precious as well. Is one child that I spent $15k traveling to China to adopt worth more than one that I had myself for 'free'?!?!

    Cost paid to obtain a dog does not equate to how much the owner values them at.

    My Chis were purchased from a friend and the other from a breeder for less than $500.

    However, they are worth $500 Trillion dollars to me, and if someone EVER did something to purposely harm them, I would seek EVERY legal avenue that I had

    You state that it seems that people with lower priced dogs are the ones who seem to demand huge settlements...I am just curious where/when you have seen this....are you an attorney, bailiff or paralegal?
  9. i am with you on this.....
    my pup is a mutt... and anyone who mess with her will have to face me... and trust me.... i can be as vicious as a mama dog whose pup got injured.
  10. Maybe it didn't come out right. What I'm saying is let's say you have a dog that is 500 and the vet bill to was 1000. I don't see how you can go to court demanding like more than say 1500ish. I'm not saying all owners who have rescues andor lower priced dogs are like that, but I've known people who have had pets die and from what I've seen people who have high priced dogs, I'm talking show dogs, usually want the vet bill (and usually do not even ask for the price of the dog) while people who paid say 100 for their;s walk in like they're now intilted to 2 million. :confused1:
  11. ^Again, I'm just wondering where you get that impression from???
  12. okay.. with your logic, then if something were to happen to my "free" child i cannot get as much emotional distress compensation as if something were to happen to my other child who I spent a lot of money on?

    if these show dogs owners do not want more compensation... good for them...
    but you should not judge the other people who own mutts for wanting compensation for their emotional distress.....
  13. Asking for compensation for vet bills, plus a LITTLE bit more for pain and suffering is fine. All dog and cat owners, whether they own purebreds or mutts are entitled to that.

    Asking for two million, to me, is excessive.
  14. I'm amazed at such a coldhearted statement.
    I consider my dog to be part of the family and whether it sits well with people or not I consider myself to be his mom. I got him from the shelter (I would never buy an animal from a pet store or breeder) and I love him dearly, he's priceless & worth more to me than many people I know and certainly a lot less trouble. He adores me, he never tells me lies and he comes when I shout him.
    Also what if a child was killed from eating tainted food?
    From what I recall unless you've paid to adopt one they can be made for free!
    Whether people like the comparison or not some people value their pets as they would any other human being and they have every right to do so.
  15. I'm not saying you don't have a right to feel that way, but I'm saying legally you can't have the right to one amount of money and than say well I think I'm owned 10,000 more, 20,000 more, 2, 000,000 more, ect. All I'm saying is you're owed what you're owed and if you feel upset that's sad but even if you did get the extra money for emotional damages what is that going to do? It's not going to make you feel better or forget and it does it wasn't about your emotional well being in the beginning. I also think, from people I know and have seen, if laws are made to tack on all these extra amounts for emotional reasons certain people would just run to the pound or puppy mills or just pick up strays and not take care of them and then when they die sue for big bucks.