If you think of Rover and Fluffy as members of the family, you may figure you could collect damages for pain and suffering if they were to die as a result of wrongdoing.
The law in California and many other states sees things differently. It treats pets as personal property, just like cars and computers.
But that could be changing.
Lawsuits filed in the last week by owners of dogs and cats felled by contaminated pet food could press lawmakers and courts to upgrade pets’ legal status. The food, produced by Menu Foods of Canada, is believed to be responsible for the deaths of dozens of dogs and cats nationwide.
“You’ll see a lot of pressure on legislators to remove liability barriers, to not see these animals as property but as entities like humans,” said Jon Katz, the author of several books on the changing relationship between dogs and people.
Some barriers have already been removed. Appellate court decisions in at least six states permit damages for emotional distress in some instances, said Alan Calnan, who teaches product liability law at Southwestern Law School.
Though California isn’t among the six, Beverly Hills lawyer Kenneth Phillips says several pet-owner clients have collected for pain and suffering. In one case, he negotiated a settlement for a woman with muscular dystrophy who was distraught after her dog was attacked by another and died. And in a 2004 malpractice case in Orange County, a jury awarded owners of a rescue dog $30,000 for its unique emotional value, on top of $9,000 in vet bills.
What’s more, the state of Rhode Island and several cities, including West Hollywood, Berkeley and San Francisco, have legally defined pet owners as “guardians” -- in effect equating animals with children, which is how many people regard their pets.
“Brutus was very special. He was my companion; he was my best bud; he was with me 24 hours a day,” San Clemente resident Catherine Golden, 46, said of her cat, who died of kidney failure after eating the tainted food. “All of our cats have always been members of the family. I don’t have any children, so I love my cats seriously.”
For all that, Katz warns that granting pets human-like legal status could create troublesome consequences for veterinarians, pet food and toy companies, shelter operators and perhaps even pet owners themselves. Higher damage awards for malpractice could lead to unnecessary testing and higher vet fees. And clothing animals with human-like status might eventually limit an owner’s ability to decide to euthanize a suffering pet.
Historically, no matter how beloved the animal, state laws have allowed owners compensation solely for its replacement cost in the event of injury, death or theft. Those laws were rooted in the notion that some animals -- like herding dogs, workhorses and cattle -- had quantifiable economic value based on the work they did for farmers and ranchers.
In the cases against Menu Foods, “there’s no question in the law” that pet owners will be entitled to damages to cover their vet bills, the cost of food they purchased and “funeral expenses,” said Chicago attorney Jay Edelson, who last week filed a potential class-action lawsuit on behalf of a Chicago woman who had her cat euthanized after its kidneys failed. Los Angeles lawyer Michael Morrison anticipates the suit he filed Tuesday could include 1,000 or more pet owners.
Menu Foods has said it will pay vet bills for animals sickened by its products. Lawyers involved in the lawsuits -- filed in California, Washington state, Illinois, Tennessee and Wisconsin -- say they may seek pain and suffering damages for their clients too.
“We’ve heard story after story of adult men and women breaking down on the phone because their child’s pet has passed away,” Edelson said.
The notion that pet owners are entitled to damages for emotional distress reflects what Katz calls a seismic shift in humans’ relationship to pets that has occurred in recent decades.
Half of North American pet owners responding to a 2004 survey said that if they were stranded on a desert island, they would pick a dog or cat, rather than a person, as their sole companion. Almost half said their pets were better listeners than spouses, family members or friends, the American Animal Hospital Assn. poll showed.
As far as Katz is concerned, those human-pet bonds can be too intense. He’s troubled by people who consider their pets “fur children” or insist that losing a pet is similar to losing a child.
“As the father of a child and a dog lover, I know it’s not the same thing,” he said.
Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn., a Greenwich, Conn.-based trade group, calls the pets-as-people trend “nonsense.” Vetere, a dog owner himself, said, “That guardianship stuff drives me crazy because there’s so much confusion that will result.”
For Barry Baum, a West Los Angeles veterinarian, the worry is that the legal changes regarding animals’ status could translate into higher malpractice insurance premiums. “More insidious,” he added, “will be the need to practice more defensively.” That may mean doing more tests on a pet and hiking the owner’s bill.
Giving animals a human-like legal identity might lead to higher liability awards if, for instance, a dog chokes on a chew toy, an airline misroutes a cat or an animal dies in a car accident, said law instructor Calnan. He also worries that “parties who want to represent the rights of pets could step in and object to euthanasia.”
Said Katz, “I don’t think people have thought through the consequences here.”