Vermont's highest court is being asked to decide what a dog's love is worth.
The state Supreme Court on Thursday began hearing a case that started in July 2003, when Denis and Sarah Scheele, who were visiting relatives, let their mixed-breed dog wander into Lewis Dustin's yard and he fatally shot it.
Now the Scheeles, of Annapolis, Md., are asking the court to carve out a new legal doctrine that a dog's owners can sue for emotional distress and loss of companionship, just like parents can when they lose children.
"It's so important for people to really recognize the relationship between the families and their companion animals," said Sarah Scheele, 58, who attended Thursday's court hearing.
The Scheeles' attorney argued that a family dog is worth more than a piece of property, saying dogs "love you back."
Under the current law, losing a dog is "treated the same way as the loss of an end table," David Putter said after the hearing.
"That's not what the relationship between humans and dogs is anymore. They're a member of the family and when they're lost you can't just go out to the local store and buy a new one. That doesn't fix it."
Dustin's lawyer, David Blythe, questioned how the court could draw a distinction between a dog and other personal property.
"Can you effectively create a special rule just for dogs? Why not cats? Why not horses?" Blythe said.
The court isn't expected to make a ruling before spring.
Blythe has said Dustin never intended to kill the Scheeles' dog, Shadow, and "has always regretted that it happened." He said Dustin fired an air pellet rifle at the dog in hopes of scaring it off the lawn of his home in Northfield, a community of about 6,000 residents just south of Montpelier in the heart of the state's Green Mountains.
The shot Dustin fired penetrated the dog's chest and severed an aorta, and the dog died on the way to a veterinarian's office.
Dustin, 76, has said he was aiming at the dog's rear end. He did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday.
He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and was given a year probation. He also was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay $4,000 in restitution to the Scheeles.
But the Scheeles weren't done. Sarah Scheele gave up her work as a meeting planner and has devoted her time since the dog's death to advocating for animal welfare and caring for the six special-needs dogs — most of them abused in the past — the couple has adopted in recent years. Denis Scheele, 50, continues to work as a plumber.
The Scheeles filed a civil suit against Dustin, pressing their claim that Shadow was more than a piece of property and that they could not be compensated just with reimbursement of what they paid to adopt him from an animal shelter, the veterinary bill that resulted from the shooting and the cost of his cremation.
Historically, laws across the country have limited sharply the ability of plaintiffs to collect damages for emotional loss. A parent can sue for emotional damage from the loss of a child, but a grandparent cannot for the loss of a grandchild under Vermont law, Blythe said.
"If the court carved out this exception in the common law, it would put
pet owners in a position that grandparents are not in terms of recovering
emotional-distress damages," Blythe said.
The court earlier this year ruled against a plaintiff seeking to collect for emotional distress when a cat's death resulted from a veterinarian's medication error.
One of the Scheeles' lawyers, Heidi Groff, said this case is different because Dustin acted with intent and malice when he shot Shadow.
"All previous (Vermont) cases that have presented this issue have involved negligence," Groff said, "and we have something that we think is a great deal more serious than that."
The Scheeles are particularly devoted pet owners. They feed their dogs human food, brush the dogs' teeth and dress them in raincoats when it's wet outside.
On a Web site devoted to Shadow's memory, they wrote, "Every day without you running and playing and cuddling with us is more difficult than the day before. The loss of your presence in our every moment is unbelievably painful. Not a moment passes that you are not in our thoughts, our hearts and our prayers."