Animal Law Update

Ohio Appeals Court Rules Dogs are Worth More Than “Fair Market Value”

Last month, the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision that had relied on a strict property analysis in restricting damages to fair market value in a case that involved the serious injury of a companion dog. Ruling that “substantial justice was not done,” the appellate court remanded the case back to the Toledo Municipal Court, instructing it to recalculate the damages to reflect the fact “that pets do not have the same characteristics as other forms of personal property, such as a table or sofa which is disposable and replaceable at our convenience.”

The case originated in April 2015 when Jamie Rego filed a complaint for damages against Shawn Madalinksi, whose dog attacked and seriously injured Rego’s five month old pit bull puppy Kingston while on Madalinksi’s property during a visit in November 2014. At the time the complaint was filed, Rego had spent more than $10,000 on veterinary care for Kingston following the attack, which resulted in three broken legs and numerous puncture wounds.

In January 2016, the Toledo Municipal Court awarded just $400.00 in damages, finding that because dogs are legally classified as personal property, compensatory damages were capped at the market value of the animal.

The appeal argued the trial court had erred in holding that damages for veterinary expenses incurred for the treatment of a dog attacked and injured by another dog are limited to the injured dog’s market value. The appeals court agreed, noting that while dogs are undisputedly classified as personal property in Ohio, and that damages for loss or injury to personal property, including dogs, are generally limited to market value:

“…we cannot ignore the growing number of courts outside of Ohio which have awarded veterinary expenses for injuries caused by attacks from other dogs and grooming or kennel injuries. Further, some states have enacted statutes allowing recovery for economic damages such as veterinary expenses for injured pets. In addition, various courts and law review articles have discussed the plausibility of reclassifying companion animals under a ‘semi-property’ classification suggesting such terms as companion property, or sentient property.”

The court also included “the owner’s affection for the animal” as a factor that “may be considered in assessing the reasonableness of the decision to treat the animal.” However, citing existing case law, the court made clear it intended affection as a factor to be limited to assessing economic damages (e.g. vet bills) and that noneconomic damages, such as emotional distress or loss of companionship, are not available in cases involving companion animals.

Although it is still rare for courts to award compensatory damages for noneconomic harm in cases where animals are wrongfully injured, decisions like this awarding economic damages beyond market value signal continued evolution in the courts, which—though bound by animals’ legal classification—are moving toward recognizing that animals are distinct from other forms of property.

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