Growing trend of pet law gives animals their day in court.
William Hageman Chicago Tribune
The veterinarian botches routine surgery, and now the family cat resembles something out of Stephen King's "Pet Sematary." Or that "miniature poodle" puppy you got from a breeder has grown to 90 pounds and looks more like a dingo-bulldog mix.
Pet owners traditionally had little legal recourse in situations such as these. In every court system, animals have been considered property. But animal advocates and attorneys along with their clients are making headway in getting the legal system to recognize what society increasingly believes:
Animals are more than just property. They're like family.
Today, people are seeking out lawyers like Chicago's Amy Breyer who specialize in the growing field of animal law and will pursue cases such as veterinarian malpractice, animal abuse or landlord-tenant issues with as much aggressiveness and skill as any other type of legal claim. And as the animal law landscape grows, so do questions about where it's headed and what pet owners can or should do.
"It's a big, complex issue. It's not cut and dried," said Sharon Granskog, spokeswoman for the American Veterinary Medical Association, which represents more than 72,000 veterinarians.
Animal law encompasses a broad range of topics. It can cover companion animals, farm animals, research animals and wildlife, and civil as well as criminal cases. The key to the growth of the field is that judges and juries have begun to look at animals as companions or family members. And that's a big change. But is it a good one?
These kinds of cases have probably been around, though under the radar, for a long time, said Breyer, who graduated from Northwestern University in 2000 and opened the first animal law practice in Illinois.
"But ... it was the kind of case where it was your neighbor or friend and you'd just see what would happen. You'd file it in small claims and if it got dismissed everybody just went away," she said.
It's a new ballgame today. There once was a time when opposing attorneys would bark at Steve Wise in the courtroom.
Wise has been working in the field for 25 years. He's an attorney, and author ("Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals"). He has taught at the Vermont Law School, Harvard Law School and the John Marshall Law School.
"When I began doing animal-protection law in 1980, there were just a handful of lawyers around the United States who took any of these cases or took them seriously," he said. "Hardly any judges had seen the issue or dealt with it seriously."
That's because of attorneys such as Breyer. In her practice, she handles pet-related cruelty claims, condo zoning issues, contractual disputes, consumer fraud and veterinary malpractice lawsuits.
One of the malpractice suits is a pending case involving a Lab-shepherd mix named Missy.
About three years ago, Jim and Kristin Noyes, then living in St. Charles, Ill., adopted Missy from a South Elgin shelter where they volunteered. She was about 8 at the time and had been at the shelter for six months. Not only was her age working against her, but Missy also had bad knees on both rear legs.
The Noyeses adopted her and chose to have a patented surgical procedure performed. It's called tibial plateau leveling osteotomy and is done by veterinarians certified in the method. They chose one such vet for the surgery. But the results weren't as promised - the lawsuit claims the veterinarian failed to follow the prescribed procedures - and after numerous follow-up surgeries, Missy's left rear leg had to be amputated by another surgeon.
"I've been involved my entire adult life with lots of animal-rights organizations that I've worked with, I've supported," Jim Noyes said. "But until this came up I'd never really thought of the topic of animal law and what it entailed. But I was put into a position where it came to the forefront very quickly."
The suit seeks in excess of $50,000 in damages. That's a lot of money for a shelter dog. But in the expanding landscape of animal law, where companionship counts, it isn't unheard of.
"I think now there has been this steady drumbeat of suits around the country where lawyers are beginning to try to sensitize judges to the fact that veterinary malpractice cases are really serious," Wise said, "and that they actually deal with people's companion animals. And companion animals are frequently seen as family members."
That may be a stretch, and a dangerous one, said the AVMA's Granskog, because it leads to a discussion of pet ownership versus guardianship.
"Is an owner not an owner but a guardian? And when you get into that, you start getting into that legal definition of what a guardian is, and then you get into (a situation in which) you may not be able to make health-care decisions for your animal. You may be required by law to have certain surgeries, or certain things, because that has been determined to be the best thing for the animal."
Terminology aside, there also is the question of whether an increase in malpractice cases would lead to higher malpractice insurance premiums, and thus higher vet bills. Right now premiums are low - typically a couple of hundred dollars a year - and similarly, the amounts paid out in malpractice cases have been relatively small. The largest damage award in a vet malpractice case is $39,000, handed down last year in Orange County, Calif.
But, as Wise said, the monetary damages aren't always the most important aspect of a case.
"I'm a business and entertainment litigator, but I have a passion for animal-protection issues," said Terri Macellaro, who was the plaintiff's attorney in the Orange County case. "I took the case because it was an opportunity to try to get the law to catch up to where it should be. And I think we accomplished that, at least in part."
After finding the vet guilty of malpractice, the jury decided that although the dog was a rescued dog with a market value of only $10, there was a unique value of the animal to its owner. The jury put that amount at $30,000. The additional $9,000 was for the owner's vet bills.
"Part of the problem before was that it was believed that animals had a market value of whatever somebody paid for them," Marcellaro said. "And now the law is starting to recognize that's not the case. So the law can call a dog a piece of property all it wants, but at least there's a recognition that it's a very valuable piece of property that cannot be replaced by simply going out and buying another dog."
Veterinarian Denise M. Lindley said that in her 17 years in the profession, she has had fewer than 10 cases turned over to her insurance company. And she prevailed in every one. So the system has worked for her. But she doesn't like what she sees in the expansion of animal law.
"It's bothersome to me," she said. "It's a frontier that lawyers probably think they can exploit. But, you know, why is a lawyer going after a $39,000 case when they can do kabillion-dollar cases in the state of Mississippi for cigarettes? I don't understand that."
She isn't just pointing a finger at lawyers; pet owners are part of the problem, she said. They'll buy a dog from a pet shop or sign a contract with a breeder without being fully informed.
But until something is hammered out, and as the field of animal law evolves, the courts, lawyers, vets and pet owners will have to feel their way.
"It's very new," Breyer said, "and so I think society as a whole is not used to necessarily having these things resolved. There's a learning curve."
Here's a sampling of some of the larger monetary awards in recent animal-related cases:
-$135,000 for the poisoning of two dogs in Oregon.
-$126,000 for the intentional destruction of two pet horses in Kentucky.
-$45,000 for the death of a cat, killed by a neighbor's dog, in Washington state.
-$39,000 for veterinary malpractice in the death of a dog in California.
That is one of the most promising articles I've read in a long time.
Guys, this is the key to ending irresponsible pet ownership and violence to domestic animals: PUNITIVE DAMAGES.
I'll bet people would be a hell of a lot more serious about containing their potentially dangerous dogs if they know that they could be sued for $40,000 when their animal goes out and kills someone else's pet.
Guys, this is the key to ending irresponsible pet ownership and violence to domestic animals: PUNITIVE DAMAGES
Are you serious? you really think this is the answer. this just like the idea of "build more prisons". it is an after the fact band-aid. Education and Regulation. that is what is goin to help. saying that laws enabling people to sue for damages is going to help. is just like saying longer jail senteces will deter the drug problems we have. education is by far the most effective tool we have and nobody ever wants to spend money on education. they just want there to be more punishment. 45,000.00 dollars for a cat that got killed. that is riduclous. i could see some money for replacing the cat, and paying any bils for the owner they may have incured for the incident. but i do not get how money eases emotional suffering. it does not in no way does massive amounts money cure hurt, it just satisifies, hate, anger, resnetment, revenge and greed these people are feeling towards the owners of the dog.
while i agree that 45,000 will in no way ever replace my pet should it be killed by someone or their pet, i seriously dont think we need more education on the proper way to handle your animals. no one is listening. the idiots who allow their pets free roam to cause these problems dont want to be told what they are doing is wrong. they dont care about the consequences. so why not hit them where it will make the most impact. that is an effective method of education. give them a stiff consequence for their actions and maybe next time they will be responsible.
It's not meant to allieviate suffering, it's meant as a deterrant for future incidents. It would better be compared with punitive damages awarded in class action suits against automotive companies for deadly mechanical errors. Before that began, the companies would actually sit down and calculate whether it was more expensive to recall and revise the errors of which they were aware, and if they should instead just absorb the exact costs for damage, injuries & deaths.
Similarly, I've known people who ignored all pleas to contain their animal, simply because they knew that it was much much cheaper to replace someone's gutters or someone's dead cat than to install an escape-proof fence in their yard!
When as a child I was mauled by a dog running loose in the neighborhood, the owner literally LAUGHED at our concerns until she was informed that she was vulnerable for a significant lawsuit. The only kind of education that changed her mind was of the financial kind.
This is like the woman who sued the fast food chain and wone when she drove her car with a cup of coffee on her lap and spilled it burning herself.
Too many law suits in this country is hurting us all. Our insurance premiums keep going up and in jersey are like a mortgage payment.
Eduction may not be the answer to all, irresponsible idiots will be just that and all the education in the world will not change that. I don't have the answer but until the law gets serious about passing out fines and removing pets and children from homes nothing will change.