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Every Dog Has His Day in Court

Once considered merely property, pets are being assigned more emotional value by judges and juries who are also granting them greater protections.

May 24, 2000|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a botched operation left Helen Evers' Rottweiler, Lonnie, with mangled nails and a set of broken teeth, the dog was inconsolable--and so was Evers. Night after night, Lonnie wailed in pain--and Evers cried right alongside her.

So the Costa Mesa woman took Lonnie's veterinarian to court and earlier this year won a $20,000 emotional-distress judgment. Legal experts described it as the largest emotional-damages award ever against an animal doctor, but they believe the record won't stand for long.

In an age of pet day-care centers and bakeries specializing in gourmet dog biscuits, America's bond with its four-legged companions is also reshaping the way courts view Rover and Rex.

"Animal law" started gaining notice two decades ago with a scattering of pet custody and wrongful death cases that raised eyebrows and provided fodder for late-night comedians. But the legal establishment is beginning to take notice, and 2000 is shaping up to be a watershed year for the fledging legal movement.

Besides the record judgment, two of the most prestigious law schools--Harvard and Georgetown--have joined a growing list of institutions that teach courses in animal law. The first textbook on the subject was published this year.

Tennessee on Monday became the first state in the nation to approve emotional-distress damages for the loss of a pet, while experts are awaiting a potentially precedent-setting Massachusetts appeals court decision on a wrongful death suit involving animals.

"Some courts are starting to recognize the power of the human-companion animal relationship," said Steven Wise, an adjunct professor of animal law at Harvard University. "The law for so long has really only recognized animals as things, and courts generally only looked to their economic value with respect to losses. But that is slowly beginning to change."

The victories so far have been limited mostly to lower courts and don't involve decisions that set broad legal precedents. Animal law scholars, however, said these cases are laying a foundation for broader legal changes.

"A lot has been coming together in the past year. It seems like the doors are open," said Sonia Waisman, an adjunct professor at California Western School of Law and co-author of the first animal law casebook.

For now, animal law attorneys are focusing primarily on broadening the rights of pet owners by recognizing the human suffering caused by the loss or injury of a pet.

But eventually, some activists hope courts will extend certain rights to animals--changing their status from simple property to something more. Such a shift could have broad implications, giving new protections to lab animals and prompting tougher punishments against humans who abuse pets.

While animal rights activists cheer at these prospects, others fear they will have negative repercussions. Some insurers for veterinarians, for example, worry that the success of animal law will leave them overwhelmed with litigation, pushing up the costs of animal health care.

"Someday there is going to be a precedent that says animals are more than chattel. It's something we're afraid is definitely going to happen," said Jay O'Brien, executive vice president of ABD Insurance Services, a leading veterinary insurance company. "The problem is that it leaves it wide open for lawyers to ask for what they want."

Others fear the movement could prompt an explosion of frivolous lawsuits alleging all sorts of wrongs against pets.

"It's just another avenue to take advantage of the system by people seeking personal gain," said Maryann Maloney, executive director of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

From Piece of Property to Family Member

The legal definition of an animal remains what it has been since biblical times: a piece of property.

A pet's value typically has been based on a bill of sale and custody disputes resolved by determining which person purchased the pet.

One reason animal law was slow to evolve, said Jeanne McVey of the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Petaluma, Calif., is that "the animal use industry is extremely powerful and extremely entrenched."

Still, while noting a paucity of law to protect farm animals, McVey said that "dogs and cats have made tremendous strides" in recent years. At least 27 states, including California, have felony animal cruelty provisions, she said.

In recent years, attorneys have asked judges and juries to assign far more emotional value to pets and grant them greater protections. They didn't seek significant "rights" for animals but asked that their worth to humans be taken into consideration.

Courts balked at first. But in one case considered significant, a Texas appeals court justice in 1994 upheld a $4,300 jury award in a civil case involving the deaths of two dogs, Freckles and Muffin. The dogs' owner argued that their neighbor, a hunter, shot the animals intentionally.

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