Judges should be under a legal obligation to award fixed damages for emotional distress in a claim for compensation for the illegal loss or injury of a cat or dog. In this article I’m referring to the way the courts undervalue companion dogs and cats and indeed other animals. If a person’s dog or cat companion is illegally harmed by somebody the owner of the animal should be able to claim compensation not just for the monetary value of the animal which would be very low if the cat or dog is a non-purebred but also for a fixed amount to compensate for emotional distress.
Example – animal shelter in USA
Let’s take an example. A good one might concern an animal shelter in the USA. You lose your cat and you discover that they are at an animal shelter. You live a hundred miles away and you tell the shelter management that you’re going to arrive to pick up your cat tomorrow morning.
In the intervening time, the shelter screws up and kills your cat (euthanizes her). That is an illegal killing of a sentient creature owned by a person. There will be an action for compensation by the cat’s owner possibly both in contract and in tort.
I won’t dive into that but let’s just say that the owner can sue the shelter for compensation. Under the current system, if it went to court, the judge would award compensation to the owner which reflected the value of the cat. If the cat was a moggy the value would be about $35 if this was in America.
That would not be enough to compensate the owner. We need to add in emotional distress. You need to value in some way the connection between the owner and the cat. This certainly has value. The difficulty is quantifying it. It is rather amorphous and imprecise.
That’s why courts are reluctant to add in compensation for emotional distress under these sorts of circumstances. It has happened but it’s rare as I understand it.
I believe, as do many others, that regular domestic cats and dogs are hugely undervalued by the courts. It has always been like that. It’s time for a change.
Family member – close connection
I also believe that if the owner can prove through good evidence such as witness evidence and their sworn statement that they had a genuinely close connection with the cat concerned, the court should be under a legal obligation to provide a fixed amount of compensation, say about $2000 on every occasion that this kind of case arrives at the court.
It has to be good evidence to avoid people scamming. There would need to be good third-party evidence. But what I think we need to do is to remove the discretion of the judge and whether they award damages for emotional distress or not. Because it hardly ever happens in reality. This is unfair.
For a court to be obliged to award these kinds of damages it would need the governments of the relevant state in America to pass a law which sets out fixed and enforceable guidelines on judges on matters of compensation. I can’t see a problem with that.
He is an example from Nathan Winograd who wrote to me today about the lack of monetary value in pets. He argues that it is time for courts to stop treating them as if they have no value. And this is an historical problem.
Perhaps the problem really is that a hundred years ago or more people regarded pets as genuinely having little value. But times have changed. The courts haven’t. In the past pets were not members of the family. Now they are. It doesn’t apply to every home but in millions of homes in the United States and in other countries, the companion dog or cat is as valuable and as important as any other member of the family including humans.
Nathan Winograd refers to a story about a dog called Avery. He escaped from his yard and he was picked up and taken to a shelter. His family went to reclaim him. They couldn’t afford the shelter fees. The shelter management insisted that they comeback with enough money. When they returned to pick up Avery, they were told that he was dead; euthanised by the shelter.
The family sued the shelter but the judge ruled that Avery didn’t have any monetary value in the eyes of the law and dismissed the case. They appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.
At the hearing, the Veterinary Medical Association, the American Kennel Club, and the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) were able to join the litigation and have their say in court.
They took the side of the shelter and urged the court to find that Avery was “worthless” in the words of Nathan Winograd. In effect they argued that dogs are like toasters. And cats are like kettles. When they stop working you throw them away. If somebody breaks them you also throw them away. That’s how Avery was treated, like a toaster.
Why were these organisations so against increasing the value of pets? Because it might affect them. Certainly, the vets would be scared of being sued for real money on negligence claims. In effect the unfairness on undervaluing pets is because big business is protecting their commercial interests. It proves that we can’t trust the CFA nor the vets.
This sort of valuation of companion animals occurs all the time all over the world. In Avery’s case his true value was totally ignored. And the value of the connection between human and dog was it seems impossible to argue and to value.
Statutory emotional distress damages
I don’t think Avery’s caregiver should have had the obligation to argue the value of their connection with their dog. It should have been fixed in law. If my idea was in place, all they would have needed to do was to prove through a sworn statement and witness evidence that they had a close connection with Avery which would have automatically placed an obligation on the judge to grant them $2,000 in compensation.
The $2,000 is my estimation of what this kind of compensation could be valued at but it would be up to the politicians to set a figure. My figure may be an underestimate. Something in the order of $10k may be a more accurate reflection.
This would be a far fairer way to proceed than is currently the case. It is high time the court recognised the value of the connection between human and companion animal and their true intrinsic value.
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