To many of us, our pets are members of the family. We value them for their love and companionship. We talk to them as if they were human babies. Dogs, cats and other animals can fill a void for an adult otherwise living alone. Children likewise form strong attachments with family pets.
However, until earlier this year, California law did not recognize the special value that pets play in our lives. They were considered mere property, worthy of no more consideration than an appliance, piece of furniture, or other object. If someone wrongfully caused serious injury to your favorite pet, the recoverable damages were limited to the money it would take to purchase a new dog or cat from a shelter or pet store. You could not recover for any costs of veterinary treatment that exceeded the pet’s pre-injury sales value. As such, thousands of dollars in necessary expenses to save the life of a critically injured dog or cat were not recoverable if a similar animal could be purchased for $100.
A northern California appellate court recently rendered a decision elevating the value of family pets above that of a lifeless possession. In Kimes v. Grosser (2011 DJDAR 7866), plaintiff’s cat Pumpkin underwent emergency surgery and supplemental treatment costing over $35,000 after being shot with a pellet gun fired by one of the defendants. The trial court refused to permit Pumpkin’s owner to introduce evidence of the out-of-pocket cost of treatment that far exceeded the cost of purchasing a new cat. This decision was reversed on appeal. While declining to award damages for Pumpkins’s emotional value to its owner, the court held that the plaintiff could recover the reasonable and necessary costs of veterinary care to prolong its life. The case was remanded to the trial court to allow a jury to decide the appropriateness of Pumpkin’s treatment and its attendant expense.
For pets and their owners this case is very good news.
For injured pets, it may mean a second chance at life. Their owners now have an added incentive to forgo euthanasia and finance the costs of life extending veterinary treatment made necessary through the bad acts or negligence of others. When an unrestrained aggressive dog attacks and seriously mauls a weaker animal, the owner of the injured pet has legal recourse against the owner of the attacking dog for expensive surgery and follow-up treatment necessary to treat the animal’s injuries.
For pet owners, the decision puts their heart in tune with their wallet. For many of them, their animal is not an object to be discarded and replaced when cost of repair exceeds the cost of replacement. Kimes makes it more financially palatable to pay for a pet’s treatment for injuries resulting from the intentional acts or negligence of another. The injured animal’s owner can pay the veterinary bills and then sue in small claims court for up to $7,500 in expense reimbursment. Owners with larger veterinary expenses can file a civil complaint to recoup the cost of professional services administered to pets with life-threatening injuries.
The decision is a victory for pets and their owners by giving our animal companions an elevated status as personal property. The owner of an object broken or damaged through the fault of another can not recover repair costs that exceed the cost of purchasing a similar item. Pet owners, by contrast, can seek the recovery of veterinary costs even if they exceed the cost of adopting a new animal of the same kind. (Pumpkin’sowner presumably could have put his cat to sleep and bought a new cat for much less than $35,000.) To many owners, their pets are not disposable commodities the value of which is measured by the modest cost of buying a new one.
Thanks to the Kimes decision, if your pet is injured at the hands of another or the other’s animal, you can choose to spend the money necessary to treat the injuries and then sue to recover the costs of treatment.