How much is your horse worth? Or your dog? Or the barn cat that serves as a resident rodent control professional?
Animals are the personal property of their owners, and because property can be bought and sold, an objective value for your horse is fairly easy to calculate. Fair Market Value (FMV) is the price that a willing buyer would pay and a willing seller would accept. FMV, in other words, is what you could actually get if you decided to sell your horse, and how much it would cost for you to replace him. If your horse dies or is harmed through the fault of someone else, veterinary malpractice, for example, or a person’s negligence, your damages in a successful lawsuit generally will be limited to the animal’s replacement value. This legal remedy is called "economic damages" and it is the norm for property damage lawsuits.
But what about so-called "non-economic damages," the emotional distress and loss of companionship that often accompanies the death of a beloved horse or other animal? Perhaps because such intangible value is much harder to quantify, legislatures and courts traditionally have been reluctant to recognize this class of damages.
Earlier this year, a California appellate court ruled that the relationship between a dog and her owner did not satisfy state law requirements allowing an award of damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. This was true, the Court said, even if the owner’s allegations of negligent veterinary care, misrepresentation, and fraud were proved to be true.
The Vermont Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion on a claim of non-economic damages (including loss of companionship and infliction of emotional distress) resulting from the death of two cats following veterinary treatment. The Court followed state law dating back more than 100 years to find that animals are personal property and that damages for loss are limited to FMV. Appellate courts in Delaware and Ohio followed suit in this year, although the animal owner in Ohio was awarded related veterinary expenses in addition to FMV.
Legislation allowing non-economic damages for the death of an animal is introduced in a few states every year, but never has fared very well with lawmakers. Only two states—Tennessee and Illinois—currently allow a court to award non-economic damages. Neither law guarantees such an award, and both have restrictions on the circumstances that can give rise to non-economic damages. Both states also impose an upper limit on non-economic damage awards.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and other professional organizations generally oppose the expansion of legislation allowing the award of non-economic damages. While the reasons for this opposition might seem sensible—higher damage awards leading to higher malpractice insurance premiums leading to higher costs for veterinary care leading to less veterinary care for animals, for example—there is a dilemma. The AVMA promotes the importance of a robust "human-animal bond," and manufacturers of many veterinary products have marketing campaigns that treat animals as members of their owners’ families.
It is disingenuous to espouse the value of a strong and loving relationship between owners and their animals until there is a lawsuit, then argue that animals are, after all, just another piece of property. To its credit, the AVMA does recognize that an animal’s monetary value might be more than simple replacement cost, and may include the animal’s age and health, pedigree and breeding status, associated veterinary expenses, and any special training or utility to the owner. But the organization stops short of endorsing traditional non-economic damages for the loss of an animal.