How Much is That Doggie in Your Window?
“We would give everything for what we have.”
- Poet Tony Hoagland
For the past two years, I have had the privilege of writing the grief column for Dogs Unleashed. Beginning this month, I don my primary professional attire - a legal suit - and write about what I know best: animal law. And what better way to start than with dispelling one of the most widely held legal myths: companion animals are priceless.
In November, a Cedar Springs man brutally killed a kitten named Luna in front of a crowd of horrified onlookers, including children - a felony under Michigan’s animal anti-cruelty laws. Following the jury’s conviction, Kent County Circuit Court Judge Donald Johnston sentenced the murderer to up to eight years in state prison. While justice was seemingly done, Luna’s owners, should they choose to sue in civil court, would be entitled to recover nothing more than her street market value. “Luna is treated under the law as if she were a table lamp or some other piece of personal property,” said Johnston.
Street market value is generally calculated as the amount of money someone would pay on the date of death for an animal of the same age, breed and condition. Nothing more. Most families’ companion animals do not hold pedigrees. Many are rescues or mixed breeds. In the eyes of the law, they have little or no market value.
In contrast, when a human family member is injured or killed due to the intentional or even negligent act of another, the individual and her family members usually have the right to sue the responsible party for damages. The legal system recognizes and allows for compensation to the victim and the victim’s family for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering or loss of companionship, love and affection. Despite the roles companion animals play in millions of our homes, most states, including Michigan, make no such provisions.
Of the handful of states which do allow for some limited relief, it is minimal. For example, in California, plaintiff arranged for an elaborate funeral for her 15 year old poodle including a head stone, an epitaph, and attendance by plaintiff's two sisters and a friend. Upon opening the casket, plaintiff found the body of a dead cat. The court ruled she was entitled to $700 in damages beyond her dog’s street market value for the shock, mental anguish and despondency she suffered due to the wrongful destruction and loss of her beloved’s body.
And in Tennessee, a leader in this arena, a companion animal owner may, under limited circumstances, seek non-economic damages up to $5,000 for the death of his companion animal against a person who intentionally or negligently causes the death or injuries leading to the animal's death. These damages are not for the intentional infliction of emotional distress of the owner or other civil claim, but rather for the direct loss of "reasonably expected society, companionship, love and affection of the pet."
The handful of states who have made way for a recognition of a companion animal’s “intrinsic value” described by one court as, "a pet is not just a thing but occupies a special place somewhere in between a person and a piece of personal property" are to be commended. They have boldly taken the first step toward increasing the status of companion animals under the law.
In 2015, I plan to approach the Michigan legislature demanding the value our laws place on our companion animals align with their value not only in our hearts and lives but in their very being. Please contact me if you are interested in supporting this effort.