California Evaluates the Real Value of Companion Animals

Posted by Lisa Franzetta, ALDF's Director of Communications on April 27, 2009

ALDF appeared before the California Court of Appeal in Santa Ana last week as an amicus curiae in a veterinary malpractice case that marks, to our knowledge, the first time a California Court of Appeal has ever considered the question of how to evaluate the real value of a companion animal.

In this case, Gail McMahon’s dog, Tootsie–whom McMahon raised, trained, and cared for since her birth–was killed because of the alleged negligence of her veterinarian and veterinary hospital. Despite the vet’s knowledge that food needed to be withheld from Tootsie for twenty-four hours after the animal’s surgery, to prevent aspiration pneumonia, Ms. McMahon claims that Dr. Craig instructed a technician to feed Tootsie water and food just two hours after surgery. Ms. McMahon’s complaint alleged that as a result of her imprudent actions, Tootsie immediately aspirated liquid and food into her lungs and died shortly thereafter. Ms. McMahon claims that Dr. Craig’s negligence caused not only Tootsie’s death, but serious emotional distress for Ms. McMahon, who had lost her beloved companion.

The basic problem courts must deal with in awarding damages in cases involving the wrongful injury or death of a companion animal is: how do we reconcile the fact that companion animals are, by law, “property” with the fact that they mean so much to us and provide so much benefit to our lives?

ALDF Chief Outside Litigation Counsel Bruce Wagman presented ALDF’s position on how this analysis should be undertaken during oral arguments in McMahon’s appeal on April 23. It’s a rare panel of judges who wants to hear much from an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court”–i.e., someone (like ALDF) who is not a party to the case, but who volunteers information or a legal point of view to assist the court in deciding a matter before it. Bruce had been allotted ten minutes to present ALDF’s argument that, in brief, because animals are who they are and give what they give to us, we can’t possibly base their value on a market standard in a case where they are wrongfully killed. As we expound on in our amicus brief:

Although this lawsuit does not involve the death of a human, it does involve real loss – the loss of Ms. McMahon’s companion animal, Tootsie. Ms. McMahon has sued the respondent veterinary medical providers for their role in Tootsie’s death. The issues here focus on the changing evaluation of the damages available when companion animals, despite their status as personal property, are tortiously killed.

Courts across the country are increasingly finding that market value is not the appropriate measure of damages in cases involving the loss of a companion animal. These courts recognize that longtime animal companions – like Tootsie – are a special kind of property, in that they cannot be readily replaced in the marketplace. Indeed, Tootsie cannot be truly replaced at all. Therefore, reliance on a market value measure is misplaced, as such a number would simply not provide adequate compensation to Ms. McMahon.

The panel of three judges ended up asking Bruce thoughtful questions about ALDF’s argument for a full thirty-five minutes, far beyond the initially allotted ten minutes. Perhaps when they go home to think through the issues, there are some companion animals waiting at their own doors to remind them of the very unique role that our animal “property” (a term I’m sure my own cats would take exception to) plays in our lives.

Now, we wait for the judges to issue their opinion.


24 thoughts on “California Evaluates the Real Value of Companion Animals

  1. The fact that the court even heard you is movement. Many years ago I and 40 other volunteers picketed and protested and wrote letters to the CA Veterinary Board about the Dr. who runs the Orange County Humane Society, to no avail. I hear things have improved…some…but the animals who suffered (or died) under his care, both at the shelter and at his adjacent hospital, reached into the hundreds.

    Good luck, and thanks for fighting for the animals.

  2. Michelle Hyllested says:

    Finally there may be a legal precident where the true value of a pet is considered. Dogs and cats are family members for the majority of pet owners. If your dog is murdered the market value of the dog is in no way a measure of what you have lost.

  3. Maria says:

    My dogs are my life and their love and companionship is just as valuable as my human friends. The courts should recognize that the loss of our pets impact each person differently and the value of the loss for wrongful death of tort acts should be based on the evidence brought forth to the court by testimony and documentary evidence. This should include the interaction between the animal and the owner, whether the pet lives indoor, the type and nature of the vet care that the animals receives and any other evidence that would depict the relationship, frequency and interactions with the pet. Is that so hard to present or too cumbersome for a Judge to hear?

  4. Tina says:

    Thank you ALDF!

    As a grieving guardian who has pursued my dog’s loss to veterinary negligence/malpractice legally, I wish you the best of luck in this case! You are truly the gurdian angel of all animals. I have supported your cause and will continue to do so until the century-old law changes and considers companion animals more than “mere property.” Loss of companionship is PRICELESS! I have suffered more from the loss of my companion than the loss of a close relative!

  5. Animal voice says:

    The depth of love for our companion animals is very much like the love we have for small children. Both are totally dependent for life itself. But while human children grow to independence, our animals remain totally dependent until death: They remain like children in our minds eye.

    At 65 I still grieve the loss of a dog when I was fourteen.

    Laws need to change to reflect the value of companion animals to their families.

    Thank you ALDF. You are my hero’s list.

  6. From the bottom of my heart, I thank ALDF for taking on this important fight. So many animal welfare organizations refuse to say a word about veterinary malpractice, because they fear alienating the “veterinary community.” Thus, people like myself, whose cat was given a massive overdose at the vets, are left voiceless, without representation in our legal system. I cannot express my gratitude often enough. Someday, when I am rich (ha ha) I will contribute to help ALDF establish a fund JUST TO HANDLE veterinary malpractice cases. Until then, we must simply fight hard for every small legal victory. I know that the veterinary lobbyists and the “pet product industry” are fighting you tooth and nail with their much larger wallets in tow. How can I ever thank you for speaking up for me and my best friend EVER? I loved him SO very much, I feel his loss daily.

  7. Natalie Kramer says:

    Dogs and cats are our precious companions. Humans are responsible for them because we made them tame and dependent on us. They are priceless, and our attachment to each one of them is inique. The fact that they are still viewed as property in the eyes of the law is a travesty! I think the veterinary establishment is criminal and shameless in their exploitation of our bond with companion animals to their (veterinarians’) profit, while fighting tooth and nail against any improvements in the area of our rights as guardians and our companions’ rights to safety and well-being. The vets’ association with the pet food industry and the other “adjuncts” is scandalous! Commercial pet food is unhealthy for our dogs and cats, and yet veterinarians are silent about it. Thank you for all you do to uphold our rights and the rights of our companions.

  8. james carrell says:

    I hope and pray that someday, ALL of the world will stop recognizing OUR “pets”, as property.
    I don’t have “pets” I have children.
    Unfortunately, we just lost one of ours, VERY prematurely.
    She was only 11 and her breed lives on average to be 15 or 16 years old. I have even talked to some people that have had their’s live to be 20 years old.
    This past February, she was diagnosed with Lymphoma. We went with the HOLISTIC/HOMEOPATHIC method of treatment.
    Why NOT conventional/chemo,,,CONVENTIONAL
    practices is what KILLED HER IMMUNE SYSTEM. We had NO idea of HOW DANGEROUS VACCINES ARE,
    HOW DANGEROUS STEROIDS ARE, HOW DANGEROUS FLEA PRODUCTS ARE, HOW DANGEROUS PET FOOD IS.

    AND OUR VETS. NEVER TOLD US.
    We found out too late, we lost our baby.

  9. Companion owners everywhere can hope that the CA court sees wisdom in awarding large non-economic damages for a living unique sentient being.

    It is well known by statistics across the nation that Veterinary Medical Boards are not imposing any to very little deterrent for:
    malpractice, gross negligence, abuse, fraud, and even instances of obvious animal cruelty.

    I don’t see this as possibly viewed as setting abuse of the legal system; when there are few and far between plaintiffs willing or able to afford representation and few attorneys willing to take such cases.

    Veterinarians have enjoyment of a double standard, willingness of clients to seek the best of care, lowest of professional malpractice liability premiums, and the benefit of legal status of close to nil value of patients when treatment goes awry.

    Again, there is no meaningful deterrent or accountability both within and outside the profession to insure: skill, safety, accepted protocol, and ethical & compassionate treatment.

    Thank you ALDF, the attorneys and Plaintiff in this case.

  10. Lisa Taylor says:

    My companion friend IS my family and is a blessing to me. Thank you for taking on this fight. She was recently harmed by a vet who misrepresented himself as a specialist and performed unneccesary surgery and substandard care. The torture she endured was not only hoeendous to her, but to me as well. The grief, loss and pain people experience after losing a companion animal is no different than the grief and loss of losing a family member or best friend. Vets hold licenses and should be held accountable! Thank you for your efforts!!

  11. AJ LANE says:

    After losing my two smooth fox terriers last year, I am still shakily recovering this. Not a day passes that I don’t miss them; they were so smart and fun; full of love of life. Circumstances prevent me from being a doggy mommy again. I applaud your efforts on behalf of animal companions everywhere. Please push forward to ensure laws are changed accordingly.
    Thank you.

  12. J. Morley says:

    Animals should not be treated like a piece of furniture like they are in the state of california. to folks like ourselves who never had a child our maltese filled that voidness completely our 3+ maltese was killed in a vet’s office in march of this year attorneys we have contacted say they really can’t do anything to make the vet accountable for the wrongful death of our beloved pet who was in perfect health and needed only a teeth cleaning but was killed by bad care.We hope that it is realized pets are more than just a animal to those whose pet is almost everything.

  13. B. Nara says:

    My healthy 3 year old, 6 pound Maltese went for a physical to the Animal Medical Hospital in Palm Springs, CA.. The veterinarian said he was in good health but needed a teeth cleaning. I told him I would not let him be anesthetized for he was too small and too allergic and sensitive to drugs ( as he had other drug reactions/symptomology. He said he could use just the gas mask on him. I called the hospital a few weeks later to inquire whether or not there was a woman vet. on staff. I felt a woman would be more gentle with my beloved pet and also should have smaller hands. There was a woman there. She did not heed my warning to her about my dog’s allergic reactions to drugs and went ahead and inducted him the same as any other dog. Needless to say he arrested and ultimately died a cruel and heinous death due to her ineptitude. These veterinarians and the hospital are not accountable. They should not be permitted to practice. B. A. Nara

  14. Gloria Wolk says:

    A far better argument in favor of the value of companion animals would be to collect scientific evidence of the effect on human’s health. Such as the difference in blood pressure of humans when they are under stress and have their pet near, as compared to a spouse–actual study.

    And companion animals that became distressed and gave early warning to humans when there was a potentially cancerous tumor. And news reports of companion animals that saved their human’s life.

    The now defunct TV show, Miracle Pets, has an amazing collection of these stories.

    When my then 7 yr. old GSD nearly died from a rattlesnake bite, I was so distraught I could not eat, could not sleep, could not work, and when I drove a friend to the clinic to visit with me, my driving was so dangerous that the friend insisted on driving me after that experience. (BTW, the Orange County Emergency Clinic, located near Home Depot, saved her.)

  15. Jody Hake says:

    I am the friend who wrote the letter considered in the case regarding Toots, as we called her. I bottle-fed that lovely little animal on the day that she was born. Until the day that she died, she literally “flew” thru the air to try to get to me and lick me to death every time she saw me. This was not an ordinary doggie – but nobody’s doggie is an ordinary doggie.

    Yet, I am a cat person. It really does not matter. I am the companion of two wonderful Abyssinisn feline beasts; one from a breeder, one from the “pound” (and rather mistreated on his way to me). My big boy, Bugsy, has been put to risk by careless veteranians twice, to the point that I hate to take him to the vet, and he really hates to go. (He and anaesthesia just do not get along, and my reminders to the vet have not been adhered to twice now – the results are expensive and life-threatening to the cat) Veterinians must be held to a proper – shall we say a higher – standard, and Gail’s lawsuit should only serve to highlight the fact that we may be getting substandard care for our animals and there is no recourse under fedaral law to hold these persons responsible.

    Matters not. Gail is a long time friend of mine, and I believe she struck a real blow for animal lovers everywhere, whether she won her quest or not. Somebody had to do it, and I certainly hope that someone will follow in her footsteps.

  16. Betty Dews says:

    My best friend Clooney was misdiagnosed in spite of a positive test for Valley Fever and given medication that destroyed his immune system. City of Angels Veterinary Specialty Center in Culver City claimed to have a board certified internal medicine specialist and did not. Clooney died after 14 days in CCU at UC Davis where they did everything in their power to save his life. I am suing City of Angels, the three corporations involved, Dr Perlis the vet who treated Clooney and claimed specialty status, and Dr Mills the chief of staff who hired Perlis as their internal medicine specialist with full knowledge he was not board certified. The court so far has allowed medical negligence and three different types of fraud with emotional distress. We are in the process of asking for punitive damages. I will not let these vets and corporations so carelessly and fraudulently get away with killing my Sweetest Pea, My Pup, My Clooney. Clooney’s case could very well set precedent in Calif. We are running out of money and could use financial help. Please call Betty at 760 250 4738 if you can help. Thanks you so much.

  17. Eloise Holdahl says:

    I brought my Yorkshire Terrier, 86 day old, 3.1 lb. puppy Prince to the Emergency Pet Center in Roseville. They examined him, said is was a minor puncture wound, did not even stitch it shut. They gave him METACAM .16 mg by syring injecting it into his mouth. Wihtin three hours he died. Why can’t a VET be helf responsible for overdosing?

  18. robin says:

    My Camel Clyde the “Famous Camel” Died aug 2009. 2 months later after being treated at UC Davis.. The problem I have is that during the 5 day stay, Clyde’s neck injury wasn’t addressed as I thought it had been and as I was promised. After 2 months, I put him down to end his suffering. When Clyde’s narcropsy was performed, his neck was cut open revealing that in fact, his neck injurie was the reason for his death. Nothing other than that. UC Davis got him to eat and go to the bathroom and sent us home. It was graduation wek in june of 09 and they were very busy with other obligations. They were very attentive and nice, but didn’t follow thru. One vet had worked at a camel dairy for 1 yr. I feel she should of had all of the right contacts to diagnoise Clyde right away ! The head vet back peddled and stated that he wasn’t aware of Clydes’s slightly bent neck for 2 days. I have photos and witnesses that he lied. I trusted them….
    Clyde did alot of Charioty events, movies, church appearences, visited children at schools, gone to places of bussinesses, doctor office and hospital entertainment, parks, birthday parties and more.
    I miss him so much ! He was 8 yrs old when I put him down. Is there anyone that can help me about legal advice ?
    I have found 2 other people that had and lost a camel and one that claimed UC Davis wanted to put another camel down for research. That person declined and took thier caamel home and he lived. I have contacted Vets from Sudi Arabia, Dubi and Isreal. They all stated that Neck injuries to the camel need immediat treatment. If not they most often will die or need be put down.

  19. B. Nara says:

    Veterinarians are not responsible for overdosing an animal nor are they held responsible for any actions they perform. The veterinary board and the vets they cover are a “union”. Too bad for the clients and their beloved companions.

  20. Has there been any decision since 2009 in the California case? I am beginning the process of suing my vet for severing the nerves to my 2 yr old German Shepherd’s bladder and bowel during a dorsal laminectomy rendering her incontinent for the rest of her life. I want to take on Virginia’s assessment that she is just personal property. I am looking for guidance and support from ALDF.
    Abby’s mom

  21. c.f. lost in tears for my little girl abby says:

    I too feel our local vet hospital was very negligent. I brought my little girl beagle whom I had rescued 2 years ago from our local dog shelter, to the hospital because she was bit by our neighbors dog, I wanted to be sure nothing was wrong internally with her. The doctor told me she was fine, but suggested that they put a drain in her bite so it would heal quicker! I did not realize this would be an operation I would never have said ok. She made it sound very routine and fast to do. When they gave her the medication for this process she aspirated into her lungs the food she had eaten just a couple hours before, she died only 8 hours later. I am very mad that this was something that should never have been done with food in her stomach,and that the explanation of the seriousness of this procedure was not explained too me. I feel so awful I cry several times a day everyday still and it’s been over 2 months. Since this has happened I constantly go on the computer trying to find someone who has had this happen to them. I have yet to find anyone. lost in tears.

  22. CAB says:

    Know what the funny thing is, today people look at doctors and veterinarians like they are gods. Reality check, humans make mistakes, doctors and vets are humans, therefore they all make mistakes. Whether or not the patients owner claims the veterinarian killed my dog by overdosing, giving wrong instructions. No, typically not. What happens is, the patient’s owner disregards instructions and precautions. It happens all the time. Veterinarians, technicians, assistants, etc. are all paid for a reason. When we give instructions, or precautions, we expect the owner to be listening just as we listen to them when they call in concern of their companion. I find nothing wrong with the movement of changing the perception of animals. I do believe they are more than just pets. But I do not think that it is the Veterinarians or anyone who is employed in a vet clinics fault every time an animal is killed, injured etc. I do think it is half the owners fault for their ignorance to listen to directions. Yes they’re labels on medications but just because they’re labels, sometimes mistakes are made, therefore that is why listening to instructions is important -vice versa. And if it doesn’t sound right, ASK. There is nothing wrong with questioning authority. Miscommunication is happens all the time.

  23. I am the plaintiff/attorney who filed suit against my veterinarian in McMahon v. Craig. It is now 2012, and I have read these comments for the first time. Thank you. It makes me very happy to see others love animals as much as I do.You would be surprised to know that many thought my efforts to raise the status of pets above “property” was insane.

    As you may know, I lost the case. The court held that damages for emotional distress are not recoverable from a negligent, even grossly negligent vet. I practice law in San Francisco, CA. I would love to continue the fight for animal rights. I would like to litigate another case and take it up on appeal in a more “liberal” jurisdiction where the result may be different. If your canine kid is killed or seriously injured by a negligent vet and you live in California, call me if you think you could emotionally and financially handle a lawsuit. I will work with you on that, to be sure.

  24. orange county veterinary hospital says:

    If your pet needs immediate care, find closest veterinary clinic in your area.