Watching Our ShadowPosted by Dana Campbell, ALDF Attorney on December 24th, 2009
Animal Law practitioners are watching and holding our collective breath this week as the Vermont Supreme Court hears arguments on whether a family may collect damages for emotional distress and loss of companionship – injuries suffered when their dog was shot and killed in front of them. The case is Scheele v. Dustin, and it centers on Shadow, a mixed-breed dog who belonged to Sarah and Denis Scheele. The Scheele’s were on vacation in Vermont visiting relatives in 2003 when they stopped to take a travel break in a church parking lot. Nearby, Lewis Dustin was sitting on his porch with an air pellet rifle intending to shoot at squirrels when Shadow wandered into his yard. Although Shadow did nothing aggressive and posed no threat to Dustin, he intentionally shot Shadow, later claiming he was just trying to scare Shadow off of his property. The shot severed Shadow’s aorta and he died in the Scheele’s arms as they rushed him to a vet hospital.
From the very beginning of this case, ALDF provided legal assistance to the Scheele’s and contacted the local prosecutor’s office to ensure that cruelty charges were filed and aggressively pursued against Dustin, who was convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty. Later we helped them try to find a Vermont attorney to handle the present civil case and provided funds for that case, which has now worked its way up to Vermont’s highest court.
Why are we watching this appeal so carefully? Because an award of damages of this type, based on a family’s bond and relationship with a beloved pet rather than on easily identifiable out-of-pocket losses like vet treatment or cremation fees, would be an unexpected victory in an age where the law still considers animals the equivalent of property no different than a shoe. Courts rarely allow these emotional injury damages, particularly in recent times and especially when many states won’t yet allow these same kind of emotional damages to be awarded in cases involving the loss of certain relatives such as grandparents or aunts or an unmarried life partner.
Perhaps this simply means we need to have the courts focus on awarding damages based on the bond or relationship that has been impaired, not on the status of the being who is claiming the injury. What I mean is: instead of further limiting legal damages recovery, the law should be changed to expand our legal remedies to allow recovery for damages caused by injuries to all deep, lasting, close family relationships regardless if the relationship is between a parent and child, grandparent and child, or guardians and their beloved pet.
Sadly, given the popularity of the tort reform movement there are likely too many opposed to increasing new avenues for damages recovery to allow it. So we are watching, waiting for a court opinion not expected to issue until Spring, and remembering Shadow.