Pet owners can collect damages for emotional distress for injuries inflicted to their animals, according to a ruling by a California court of appeals.The decision came about from a lawsuit brought by California personal injury attorney Jon “Mitch” Jackson. The suit alleged that the Plotnik family in Laguna Niguel had been harassed for years by their neighbours, the Meihaus family, suffering insults, death threats and other offensive behaviour. “The fact of the matter is that the defendants were abusive bullies who threatened, stalked, attacked and/or otherwise acted wrongfully towards not only the plaintiffs, but also their two young children,” Jackson wrote in documentation opposing the defendants’ motion for a new trial.
In perhaps the most egregious accusation, the Plotnik’s claimed in the suit that one of their neighbours had smashed their dog, Romeo, with a baseball bat, causing the dog to require surgery.
The jury in the original case sided with the Plotniks and awarded them $430,000 collectively, which included emotional damages for Romeo’s injuries. After several reductions, the family will walk away with $160,000, plus $93,000 in attorney fees. In an appeals decision filed at the end of August the portion of the award for emotional distress caused by the attack on the family dog was upheld. The Meihaus family had to pay for Romeo’s surgery, too.
No Slam Dunk
“We uphold both the economic and emotional distress damages plaintiffs recovered for trespass to personal property arising from Meihaus’s act of intentionally striking Romeo with a bat,” the appeals court wrote in the decision.
Certainly pet owners who see their animals intentionally injured or killed are bound to be distraught. But the decision to allow emotional damages for the attack on Romeo wasn’t a slam dunk, as different jurisdictions have issued different opinions on the subject. Earlier this summer the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a woman could not sue for emotional distress after seeing her dog mauled and killed by a bigger dog.
However, the California court cited three other states where emotional distress for the loss of a pet has been granted: in Washington, for a woman whose cat had been set on fire; in Florida, when a man claimed mental anguish after a garbage collector killed his dog by hurling a trash can at it; and in Louisiana for a mare that was shot, which also caused the death of its unborn colt.
Dogs Singled Out
While precedent has allowed for emotional damages for various types of animals, the court singled out dogs as an animal with which humans form a special bond and can thus be especially susceptible to emotional damages when the pet is injured.
“In a sentence that made my dog Casper swell with pride, the court acknowledged that there are ‘no other domestic animals to which the owner or his family can become more strongly attached, or the loss of which will be more keenly felt,'” wrote Donna Bader, an appellate specialist who handled the appeal. “Casper reminds me that although the Court of Appeal expresses its rule in general language, i.e., ‘pet owners’ and ‘animals,’ it gave a special nod to dogs and ignored any mention of cats.”
It is unclear if cats have any discrimination protections under California law under which to bring a complaint against the court.
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