Lawyer: Courts should recognize pets as 'family'
By Peter Hirschfeld VERMONT PRESS BUREAU - Published: May 21, 2009
When Susan Goodby lost two beloved "members of the family" to alleged medical malpractice in 2002, the Craftsbury woman and her husband asked a superior court judge to award them damages for loss of companionship and emotional distress.
Vermont's civil courts have long awarded monetary damages to families affected by doctor error. Goodby's case, however, warranted no such recompense, according to a Lamoille County judge, whose ruling was upheld recently by the Vermont Supreme Court.
That's because the "family members" in question were cats, not humans. And Vermont laws, the unanimous Supreme Court ruling said, do not permit financial compensation for loss of companionship or emotional distress brought on by the negligent death of an animal, however well loved.
Pet owners are free to sue for damages in the negligent or intentional killing of a pet, but courts now assess the animal's economic value as they would a piece of inanimate property. The Goodby decision spotlights the latest development in a burgeoning effort to redefine the legal status of domestic pets.
Steve Wise, an animal-rights lawyer who represented the Goodbys, said the time has come for courts to recognize the intrinsic value of pets in modern society.
"When you act in a negligent way, and you kill someone's companion animal, the loss the person has suffered is not the market value of the animal," said Wise, a Florida lawyer who teaches animal-rights law at Vermont Law School. "… What you've lost is the relationship between you and the animal, and that's not simply like losing inanimate property." Read More
The unintended consequences of this could be enormous. First of all, the price of veterinary care would drastically increase, which would result in decreased veterinary care for many pets. Next, this could drastically affect the duty of care that is would be expected by pet owners, including making the issue of euthanizing animals a very sticky subject. Finally, how would you define pet? Will a cow or a pig be considered pets? I realize that people get emotionally attached to pets, that’s quite natural. But people also get emotionally attached to houses, cars and other objects as well. Do we really want to go down this road?