When lawyers talk about a "slippery slope," they mean this: a small change in policy that sounds good but that leads inexorably to something bad. It’s a persuasive trick of argument that’s valid only if the chain of events from minor to major can be established. Otherwise, stepping onto a slippery slope is no big deal at all.
The argument often raised against allowing non-economic or sentimental damages for harm to animals presents a classic slippery slope situation. If opponents of non-economic damages are right, courts will make such damage awards to successful plaintiffs; insurance companies will pay and will, in turn, raise their premiums charged to veterinarians; cash-strapped veterinarians will pass the increased insurance premiums on to their clients; and animals will not receive needed veterinary care because clients will not, or cannot, pay the higher vet bills. Animals, their owners, and veterinarians all will suffer.
The argument holds water only if the anticipated chain of events plays out as projected. If not, the argument falls apart.
Lessons from human medicine suggest that the non-economic damages slope is, indeed, a slippery one. Assuming for a moment that it is, how can the interests of owners who want to be compensated for the sentimental value of their animals—recognition of the human-animal bond touted by the veterinary community—be balanced against the concerns of veterinarians who fear hefty increases in liability insurance premiums and less access to affordable veterinary care?
The availability of damages in a civil lawsuit is governed by state law. Not surprisingly, there is little common ground.
A Hodgepodge of Laws
Many states simply bar the recovery of non-economic damages for harm to animals on the principle that animals are the personal property of their owners. Non-economic damages, the theory goes, are inappropriate for damages to property.
Some states allow non-economic damages, but only in certain situations. In Tennessee, for example, an animal owner may recover damages up to $5,000 as compensation for the "loss of the reasonably expected society, companionship, love and affection of the pet" that is killed as the result of the intentional or negligent actions of someone else. There are significant limitations—the definition of "pet" includes only a domesticated dog or cat (which means that recovery of non-economic damages is not available to horse owners) and the statute specifically does not authorize non-economic damages in a lawsuit claiming professional negligence by a licensed veterinarian. (No slippery slope for veterinarians in the Volunteer State.)
Montana and Illinois statutes allow non-economic damages if an animal is harmed as the result of especially heinous conduct by another person, injuries committed "willfully or by gross negligence in disregard of humanity" in the former, injuries resulting from "aggravated cruelty" in the latter. Recoverable damages in Illinois include the animal’s monetary value, veterinary bills, other expenses, and compensation of emotional distress suffered by the owner. Non-economic damages can range from $500 to $25,000 for each act of abuse or neglect.
A few states recognize that animals are the personal property of their owners, but allow sentimental damages anyway. An appellate court in Texas recently ruled that the owners of a dog that was euthanized by mistake at an animal shelter could recover damages for the sentimental value of the animal.
"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners," the court explained. "Today, we interpret timeworn supreme court law in light of subsequent supreme court law to acknowledge that the value of ‘man’s best friend’ should be protected." The court sent the case back to the trial court to put a dollar sign on that value.
The Texas decision does not necessarily start a precipitous slide down a slippery slope. The ruling is not final and may be subject to reconsideration by the full complement of justices on the state appellate court, or review by the state supreme court. Even if eventually upheld, the Texas decision does not directly address the question of whether non-economic damages would be allowed for animals other than pet dogs.
The simplest way to balance the competing interests is to allow the recovery of non-economic damages, but with a statutory cap on the award. The law should not be species-specific and should apply to harm caused by the negligence (or worse) of anyone, veterinarians included.
How would you balance the competing interests of animal owners and veterinarians when it comes to non-economic damages?