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California Court of Appeals Says Pets are More Than Inanimate Property

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California Court of Appeals Says Pets are More Than Inanimate Property

From Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF)
October 2012

"Given . . . the reality that animals are living creatures, the usual standard of recovery for damaged personal property—market value—is inadequate when applied to injured pets," Justice Kathryn Doi Todd wrote in her opinion. "People go to enormous lengths to care for their animal companions – and they do so because no individual animal is replaceable."

LOS ANGELES — Animals are fundamentally different than other forms of property, California’s Second District Court of Appeals ruled this week. The ruling permits owners of wrongfully injured pets to recover the "reasonable and necessary costs" of treating and caring for an injured animal. The national non-profit Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed amicus briefs in the consolidated cases in support of Elisio Martinez, whose dog was shot by his neighbor, and Margaret Workman, whose dog was injured by veterinary negligence. David Zaft of Caldwell Leslie & Proctor provided pro bono assistance to ALDF.

Historically, the law has viewed animals as personal property akin to furniture—one of the fundamental problems facing animals, those who love them, and the attorneys who fight on their behalf. Traditionally, the measure of compensation for wrongfully injured or killed companion animals has been the animal’s market value or the cost of replacing the animal, which is almost nothing, especially in cases involving rescued or elderly animals.

In this week’s ruling, the Court of Appeals reviewed two cases. The first involved a German Shepherd named Gunner, who was shot by a neighbor and whose leg had to be amputated, costing his family more than $20,000. The second case involved a Golden Retriever named Katie, who underwent a severely botched surgical procedure in which a veterinarian nicked her intestine and left a piece of gauze in her body. The veterinarian’s error directly led to expensive emergency surgery, costing Katie’s family more than $37,000. In both cases, the trial court limited the plaintiffs’ recovery to the market value of their companions, a paltry fraction of what they spent to nurse them back to health.

The Court of Appeals, agreeing with ALDF’s amicus briefs, reversed the trial courts’ limitation of damages to market value. "Given . . . the reality that animals are living creatures, the usual standard of recovery for damaged personal property—market value—is inadequate when applied to injured pets," Justice Kathryn Doi Todd wrote in her opinion. People go to enormous lengths to care for their animal companions – and they do so because no individual animal is replaceable. As Justice Doi Todd put it, “animals are special, sentient beings, [and] unlike other forms of property, animals feel pain, suffer and die.” This week’s decision is consistent with a trend in tort cases involving animals: courts across the country increasingly recognize the inadequacy of valuing companion animals like inanimate objects, and many permit recovery in excess of market value when companion animals are injured or killed.

“This decision is a significant step forward for companion animals and their guardians,” said Matthew Liebman, ALDF senior attorney. “The legal system is finally starting to catch up with how the majority of people feel about the animals with whom they share their lives.”

Copies of the court’s opinion and ALDF’s amicus briefs are available upon request from ALDF.