The emotional bond humans have with their animals should be obvious to anyone who has run a hand along a horse’s neck, or who has been greeted at the door by a happy dog after a bad day, or who has had a lap occupied by a standoffish cat. Our animals lift us up when we’re down, provide unconditional love and companionship, and generally make us feel better about the world. For some people, animals are a reason to go on living.
But how much is the human-animal bond actually worth, in hard cash?
Not much, apparently, at least according to an appellate court in California. The case involved a dog, but the same reasoning likely would apply if a horse had died under similar circumstances.
Tootsie was a Maltese with champion bloodlines and a history of medical problems. When respiratory problems began affecting Tootsie’s quality of life, the dog’s owner consulted with a veterinarian who recommended surgery for the condition. At the time, Tootsie’s owner told the veterinarian that she would be devastated if the dog died.
Summarizing the complaint, the court said that the surgery apparently went well. There were some problems with the post-surgical care, however, and Tootsie died. Adding insult to injury, the vet clinic then allegedly charged the owner’s credit card, without authorization, for all outstanding charges for Tootsie’s care.
Tootsie’s owner sued the veterinarian for a litany of things: malpractice, negligent failure to inform (about the care, or lack thereof, provided to the dog after surgery), intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, constructive fraud, conversion (a civil version of theft), intentional infliction of emotional distress, and loss of companionship.
After a convoluted procedural journey, portions of the case wound up in the California Court of Appeals where Tootsie’s owner complained that her claims of emotional distress and loss of companionship had been dismissed in error by the trial court.
The Court of Appeals ruled that Tootsie’s owner was not entitled to recover for emotional distress because she was neither a witness to the allegedly negligent veterinary care (the so-called "bystander" rule) nor was she a "direct victim" of the negligence. The veterinary-client-patient relationship, the court said, was not sufficient to allow emotional distress damages to an animal’s owner for injury to the animal resulting from the negligence of a veterinarian.
Ruling otherwise, the court added, would increase the number of potential plaintiffs, would overload a court system that already was faced with "burgeoning case loads" dealing with injuries to people, and would have "unknown consequences" on the cost and availability of veterinary care.
As to the loss of Tootsie’s companionship, for which the owner was seeking $100,000, the court said that an animal’s "sentimental or emotional value" to the owner was not a basis for monetary damages. Tootsie’s owner claimed that the dog’s companionship was a part of the dog’s "peculiar value" under a section of California law that covers unique or special personal property. She also argued that Tootsie should be treated more as a human being than as mere property, but the Court of Appeals disagreed on both grounds:
"We recognize the love and loyalty a dog provides creates a strong emotional bond between an owner and his or her dog. But given California law does not allow parents to recover for the loss of companionship of their children, we are constrained not to allow a pet owner to recover for the loss of the companionship of a pet."
Where does that leave the human-animal bond? Courts in California and elsewhere seem willing to recognize its existence, but unwilling to award damages to the owner of an animal which is harmed by the negligence of someone else.
The usual standard for awarding damages to personal property is replacement value only. Should courts go beyond how much it costs to buy a new horse or dog and put a real value on the human-animal bond?