Many people don’t realize that pets are “property” (like an antique dresser, lawnmower or bike) under the law until they or someone they know has a pet who has been injured, killed or involved in a custody battle. While the legal system is still lagging, there has been headway in recognizing pets as something other than mere property.
Traditionally, when a pet owner was deprived of their beloved pet and a court was asked to establish a damages amount, judges would use “fair market value” as the measure of the value of that pet’s life. One of the obvious problems with this calculation – besides having to put a dollar figure on a living nonhuman being – is what if the pet were adopted instead of purchased through a breeder. And, what if the adoption fee were zero dollars. Would this mean someone who injures or kills an animal would not be responsible for any monetary damages to the pet’s owner?
Thinking outside of the companion animal realm, image that someone accidentally runs their vehicle into fencing causing it to come down and allow a herd of sheep to escape. In this scenario, courts may not only award fair market value of the sheep if they are injured or killed but also consequential damages (normal and foreseeable damages) such as veterinary bills and loss of income (maybe they were wool producing sheep).
There are so many different things that can be considered when trying to put a dollar amount on what a companion animal is “worth” to the person who loves that pet. In a scholarly article written by distinguished attorney and animal law expert, Professor David S. Favre, seven ways are considered (the full text of the publication can be found here https://www.animallaw.info/article/overview-damages-injury-animals-pet-losses):
- Fair Market Value is the market value at the time of loss or the difference in the market value before and after the injury;
- Application of Market Value to Pets considers more than just Fair Market Value due to the sentimental attachment people have to their pets;
- Consequential Damages makes a party liable not only for the loss of the animal, but liable for the normal and foreseeable damages that stem from the loss;
- Intrinsic Value focuses on the animal as an individual as well as the relationship to the owners;
- Punitive Damages focus on punishing the person causing the harm in order to discourage the person and others from similar conduct;
- Mental Anguish or Suffering of the Owner recognizes that emotional ties between an owner and a pet can be as strong as that between a parent and a child;
- Loss of Companionship focuses on placing a value on the long term feeling of loss of the animal’s companionship.
From the area of the country where a case is heard, to a judge’s personal view on animals and their place in our society, when animal loss cases go to court, there are many variables that come into play in what type of damages will be awarded.