Noneconomic Damages Not Allowed For Intentional Killing of Pet

June 16, 2010 | Erin Herbold

 

Courts routinely award damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress or loss of companionship to affected parties.  But, are such awards warranted for pets?  That was the issue in this case involving the intentional killing of a family pet.

In July 2003, the plaintiffs unleashed their dog in a parking lot and the dog wandered onto adjacent property in pursuit of a squirrel.  The defendant, owner of the adjacent property, shot and killed the dog while the plaintiffs watched.  There was no question that the killing was intentional, and there was no question that the dog never exhibited any aggressive behavior towards the defendant and that the defendant was never in any physical danger. 

The plaintiffs sued for noneconomic damages of $3,000 for the loss of their “special relationship” with their dog.  They claimed to have suffered “severe emotional distress” including recurring nightmares, sleeplessness, and “periods of sadness,” and wanted to recover the “real worth” of the dog to them.   They also sought compensation for pet adoption fees, veterinary bills, cremation costs, litigation costs and punitive damages.  But, the trial court didn’t buy the plaintiffs’ argument, and only awarded economic damages for the intentional killing of the dog.  They found that damages for loss-of-companionship (akin to a wrongful death claim) were preempted by Vermont statutory law.  Under that statute, the relationship between pets and their owners is not a relationship for which damages may be recovered.

The plaintiffs appealed.  But, the appellate court noted that the trial court “adhered to long standing precedent” and also barred recovery for emotional suffering as a result of the defendant’s intentional and malicious killing of the family pet.  On further review by the Vermont Supreme Court, the Court affirmed.  The Supreme Court noted that the law of a majority of jurisdictions in the U.S. specifies that pets are “personal property” of their owners. Thus, the only damages available in the event of intentional killing are economic damages for the loss of personal property.  While the court noted that some state courts do allow noneconomic damages for the wrongful death of a pet even though they are considered personal property (such as in Hawaii and Florida) these cases were specific to the law of those states and did not apply in Vermont.

The Court did, however, recognize that classifying a pet as “mere property” fails to recognize that the value of a family pet is its relationship with its “human companions.” Nevertheless, the Court would not allow noneconomic damages, and also cited prior Vermont case law involving claims for emotional damages and loss of companionship associated with pet deaths stemming from negligent acts of veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies.

On the punitive damage issue, however, the court noted that if a pet owner can establish intentional or malicious conduct, punitive damages may be awarded.  But, the pet owners had abandoned that claim at trial.  Scheele v. Dustin, 2010 VT 45 (Sup. Ct. Vt. 2010).