Mourning Losses on Both Legal and Human FrontsPosted by Dana Campbell, ALDF Attorney on June 1, 2010
Unfortunate, but not unexpected, is how I would describe the ruling just handed down by the Vermont Supreme Court in the case of Shadow the murdered beloved family dog, also known as Scheele v. Dustin, —A.2d—, 2010 WL 2015270 (Vt.). As I discussed in this space last December when the case was submitted to the Court, having the Court actually ignore legal precedent that family pets are property and award Denis and Sarah Scheele damages based on their loss of companionship and emotional distress would be “an unexpected victory.” And I was right, darnit.
However, all is not lost. The opinion shows that the Court was clearly bothered by the limitations of Vermont’s current precedent regarding animals, by which it felt it was bound, and created some great language in that regard, such as: “…we are not blind to the special place they hold in our lives. Indeed, pets occupy a legal realm somewhere between chattel and children.” The Court also stated “we have suggested that the emotionless economic calculus of property law may not fully compensate a mourning pet owner and that ‘there may be a different or more appropriate measure of damages for the tangible loss of pets due to the negligence of others–a measure based on the particular pet’s value to its owner’” quoting from it’s own ruling in Goodby v. Vetpharm, Inc., 974 A.2d 1269 (VT 2009) (in which the Court considered defendant’s negligent behavior, as opposed to the intentional behavior at issue in Shadow’s case).
Perhaps due to that chafing caused by existing precedent, the Court did leave open some doors for future efforts to push the law forward in terms of changing the legal status of animals and properly recognizing their value to their guardians. For instance, the Court specifically noted that when a person has suffered from an intentional and malicious tort, “punitive or exemplary damages are the proper remedy…” but stopped short of deciding whether the defendant’s conduct in Shadow’s case rose to the level of malice required to support a punitive damages award, only because the parties here did not submit that claim to the Court. In dicta, the Court made a point of citing with approval other states that have enacted laws providing the kind of recovery sought by the Scheele’s, and also noted the Vermont legislature’s willingness to pass a law providing for “damages for the intentional destruction of certain classes of property” like trees and stated there was “no reason they could not do so here.” The Court didn’t have to say that, the opinion would have been complete without it.
So the long march to improve the legal status of animals continues and ALDF will be there out front, but sadly we have lost a soldier along the way. We received news this morning that Sarah Scheele passed away after a short battle with cancer, just days after the ruling issued in their case. We remember her in a separate tribute here.