Emotional Distress Claims for Pet Deaths in the US

by stefanies on August 15, 2012

One US Court Denies Emotional Distress Claim for Death of Pet, Another Awards $65,000

The highest court in New Jersey has refused to recognize a pet owner’s claim for emotional distress after she witnessed the violent death of her beloved dog.

Plaintff Joyce McDougall was walking her maltipoo Angel when it was attacked by a large, mixed-breed dog which grabbed the smaller dog by the neck and shook it to death.

McDougall sued the large dog’s owner, claiming that Angel had been her close companion for years and that the loss of the dog was especially hard on her since her children had left for college and she and her husband had separated.

In the case of McDougall v. Lamm, the court said:

Although we recognize that many people form close bonds with their pets, we conclude that those bonds do not rise to the level of close familial relationship or intimate, marital-type bond.

The court refused to further expand to pets the doctrine of the Portee v. Jaffee case, which allowed a suit for emotional distress to be brought by a person who witnessed the death of a family member.  The doctrine had previously been expanded to those who witnessed the deaths of intimate acquaintances, such as roommates, but not to a plaintiff who saw a neighbor’s child torn to death by a circus animal.

The New Jersey Justice noted that “not even all humans are engaged in a relationship that is sufficiently close to support such an award.”

A Superior Court judge had awarded McDougall $5,000 for the loss of the dog but dismissed her emotional-distress claim.

The Appellate Division affirmed:

While we can understand plaintiff’s considerable attachment to her dog, and the distress she suffered at witnessing such an event, we agree with the trial judge’s conclusion that plaintiff’s damages are limited to the replacement cost of the dog.

New Jersey, like some other US states, treats pets as more than simply property.  A 1988 case allowed a pet owner to recover not only the pet’s replacement cost but also the veterinary expenses incurred by the owner in treating the injured pet.

Only a few US states allow pet owners to sue for emotional distress when pets are killed.

In Colorado a court recently awarded $65,000 to a pet owner for the emotional distress she suffered after her 18-month-old dog was hit by a car after being let out of the house by a cleaning crew.  The crew also allegedly failed to notify the owner or seek veterinary care for the dog after it was hit.

In the Colorado case, the owner was represented by The Animal Law Center, which said the award was the highest in the state’s history and that “The ruling sets a damages precedent that animals are worth more than their replacement value.”

About the Author: Nussin S. Fogel, Esq., has been practicing for over 25 years as a top slip and fall lawyer in New York. Mr. Fogel founded Fogel Law, a firm specializing in Slip and Fall Accidents, Motor Vehicle Injuries, and other areas of Personal Injury Law. He has published on various aspects of Personal Injury Law across the web.

Previous post:

Next post: