Non-economic damages for the loss of a pet - where do you stand?
When pets are injured or die at the hands of someone’s negligence, lawsuits seldom follow. That’s presumably because owners can’t collect sums beyond the price of the pet and the expenses they’ve invested in his care—therefore, they can’t show they’ve been seriously damaged. But that’s changing now that more states are adopting legislation that allows owners to collect “non-economic” damages when a pet is harmed—or dies.
This means that Fluffy is no longer worth what you paid for her (nothing) or what you’ve invested in her (food, vet bills, etc.). In New Jersey, she might even be worth her market value plus $15,000 in non-economic damages, which is doubtless a more apt reflection of what her companionship means to you.
Now, that may not seem like a lot of money for having lost a loved one at someone’s negligent hands (it does little for me when I think about my own dogs) but it’s a huge step in the process of acknowledging that pets are worth more than a vacuum cleaner and its lifetime supply of dustbunny-bags.
This year promises to be a boon for lawyers working the animal rights beat. Never before have we seen such a flurry of legal activity related to pets. That’s largely because the pet food recall has awakened a sleeping giant within the collective American pet owner’s psyche. The awareness of pets as family members is also at an all-time high, even among those who never owned a pet in their lives—hence the legislative activity and the support for aggrieved citizens.
This may sound like excellent news to you, but it’s not such happy news for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) or for most of the vets it represents. That’s because we vets know we’re prime targets for these laws. We don’t have fancy legal teams like the pet food or pharmaceutical industries do. Sure, we have malpractice insurance, but the financial implications of a rising tide of lawsuits is often the least of our concern.
We see how much time, energy and stress our human doctor friends suffer as a result of malpractice suits and some of us worry—a lot—that we’ll be next. We worry that every client that walks in the door could be our next adversary. We worry that our way of practicing will have to become more defensive. We worry that our clients won’t understand when we pass our rising legal costs onto the price of their pets’ healthcare.
I’ve written about this before—so some of you already know where I’m coming from. Those of you already know my malpractice premiums are in the low hundreds—a year. Compare that to my human colleagues and it’s a pittance. I can afford to spend more on malpractice if that means shoddy practitioners will be getting their comeuppance.
Problem is, I’ve never heard of any of my low-quality colleague neighbors getting sued. I always seem to hear about the more conscientious variety getting called out of work to attend yet another deposition. For the record, I have one scheduled next week (on another vet’s malpractice case in which I’m a material witness). So I get to take a hit in a day’s lost income because some other vet is getting sued. That’s more than my whole year’s malpractice premium right there. It’s only a little example, but it should give you an idea of where things are headed and why we’re scared.
Enough of my whiny vet-defense; let me get back to fairness—and justice—when it comes to our pets. If we can offer higher quality, higher priced medicine because people increasingly believe their pets are worth it, you might counter that a more active legal environment is the price we have to pay for the benefits we enjoy.
Higher vet incomes, some argue, mean higher vet liabilities. And I’d agree, except that while vet service prices are higher, vet incomes don’t necessarily follow. The higher costs of equipment, drugs and education are too often discounted when this argument is made. Still, should we follow their suggestion to buck up and take the bad with the good?
In theory, yes—if it means more pets get treated as the family members we believe them to be. It’s just that I don’t have enough faith in our justice system to expect fairness on this score. Here are a couple of examples why:
I can’t help but think of all the clients whose own negligence created conditions for their pets’ horrible diseases—for which my attempt to cure was later used as leverage when they gave me the choice: lawsuit or nonpayment. In these cases I’ve always chosen Door #2. But they’re the ones who merited legal reprisal (for which I’m granted no power to undertake).
Or how about the animals tied up on chains in backyards all over my city whose owners cannot be prosecuted because no one can prove the dog doesn’t have access to food water and shade—and because no one with any power really cares anyway. These owners are effectively free to neglect while those of us who have made a lifelong commitment to animal health are subjected to the vagaries of the tort system.
(So you know, none of us can sue an owner for negligence or cruelty. It’s our local government’s responsibility to follow up when any citizen reports it. So animal cruelty cases almost never get anywhere because few in local government want to prosecute such expensive, politically insignificant cases. That’s why only the most despicable cases ever see the light of day.)
I hate to compare the widespread, institutionalized abuse of animals to the noble search for judicial compensation—my point is simply that our system has a consistency issue looming on the horizon. If animals are indeed worth so much in our society such that we can now collect non-economic damages for their injury or loss, then let it be fair: let’s go after pet stores, puppy mills, backyard breeders and the like with eqivalent zeal.
And, while we’re at it, prosecute those who can’t afford even basic vet care for their pets. Aren’t they basically negligent for adopting a puppy they can’t provide for? If you think that goes too far…you’re probably right. But it’s part of the continuum we’ve launched…
…and who knows where it will end?
In many ways, seeking non-economic damages for pets finds animal rights advocates pushing boundaries that need a good shove. I just wish our legislatures responded so readily to more egregious crimes against animals and didn’t seek to heap the lion’s share of pent-up animal rights energy so squarely on my profession’s shoulders.
There’s plenty of work to be done when it comes to pets’ rights. Why go after the healthcare providers first? Oh…right…because it doesn’t cost our government a dime to do so, but it makes them look like they actually give a s---. That’s politics, not justice.