New Jersey recently wrestled with a question of interest to all pet lovers. In McDougall v. Lamm, the plaintiff asked the court to decide what her pet was worth.
The facts of the case are simple, and our law firm frequently responds to calls like this. (We don’t handle them but we are glad to talk to you about it because we love animals, too.) The plaintiff’s dog was attacked by a larger dog, who picked it up, shook it, and dropped it to the ground, dead. The plaintiff saw her dog die. She filed a lawsuit against the attacking dog’s owner, who admitted that he was responsible for her damages. The court had to decide what her damages were.
The opinion touches on a number of issues, including the “zone of danger” rule (whether a plaintiff must be physically injured to recover for emotional damages received by watching another person suffer); the legal value of a dead pet; and whether a human can claim emotional damages for the death of a pet.
A few extra facts—the plaintiff told the court that she purchased her half-poodle/half-maltese nine years earlier for $200.00, and that she believed she could purchase a similar new puppy today for about $1,400.00. She of course testified that the dog was loved, knew many tricks, and was with her much of the day, particularly because she did not work out of the house.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s emotional damages claim, noting that New Jersey did not recognize such a claim in the context of a pet’s death. The court rendered a verdict of $5,000, noting that the replacement cost alone would not compensate the plaintiff for the “loss of a well-trained pet.” Even though the court stated that it did not grant emotional damages, I think that’s what it did here. A quick internet review shows that these dogs live an average of 14-18 years, so this dog had another four to eight years of life. It cost $200.00. The purchase of a brand new dog, though untrained, would cost $1,400.00. I bet she could get a trained maltipoo for $2,000 without any trouble. It seems to me that the court awarded her $3,000 in emotional distress damages, without directly calling it that. Now, if the court believed that emotional distress damages were legally proper, maybe it would have awarded more. Sadly, it ruled (as did the appellate court), that such emotional damages were improper.