California Evaluates the Real Value of Companion AnimalsPosted 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.