Alaska high court allows actual value for pets


Anchorage, Alaska- In a benchmark decision, Alaska Supreme Court justices rule that damages for the untimely loss of a pet can be measured by the cost of replacing it, or more specifically, an animal's actual value.

Anchorage, Alaska- In a benchmark decision, Alaska Supreme Courtjustices rule that damages for the untimely loss of a pet can be measuredby the cost of replacing it, or more specifically, an animal's actual value.

The case Mitchell v. Heinrichs involves a dispute over the shooting deathof a dog. In July, the high court affirmed the dismissal of a dog owner'semotional damages claim, but in turn, remanded the case back to the trialcourt, allowing her to sue for actual value, court records show.

Actual value determinants can include the cost of an animal's replacementand such investments as training and veterinary fees. In cases of purebreds,courts might also recognize the animal's breeding potential that's lostafter death.

State veterinary officials such as Paul Frederickson, secretary for theAlaska State Veterinary Medical Association, say they've never heard ofa case like this. Traditionally, courts decide that damages can be determinedonly by the animal's fair market value, or its worth at death, which usuallyamounts to $20 or $30 for adult companion animals.

Penn. law allows emotional damages

But in Pennsylvania, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruledagainst the system, ignoring precedent set by the Wisconsin Supreme Courtand a Kentucky appellate court when it determined a pet owner can recoveremotional pain and suffering damages for the intentional killing of a pet.

In Brown v. Muhlenberg Township, the U.S. Court of Appeals, applyingPennsylvania law, ruled a dog owner can recover emotional damages when apolice officer shot the dog in the owner's presence, killing it.

At the same time, courts in New York and Michigan also have heard recentemotional pain and suffering cases and promptly dismissed them.

"There is no doubt that pet owners have become so attached to theirfamily pets that the animals are considered members of the family,"the New York decision says. " However, the law is clear that pet ownerscannot recover for emotional distress based upon an alleged negligent ormalicious destruction of a dog, which is deemed personal property."

What it means for DVMs

While there's no national standard on how pets are viewed in courts,allowing awards for more than their fair market value could make veterinariansand insurance companies easy marks for huge legal costs in terms of malpracticeclaims.

For that reason, the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA)human-animal bond committee plans to meet with an attorney this month todiscuss issues associated with evaluating the worth of companion animals.

The goal, says Dr. Gail Golab, AVMA assistant public affairs director,is to draft a formal position on the issue, which could be presented tothe group's Executive Board in April.

"There are obvious ramifications for the profession," Golabsays. "There are a number of different approaches already in the courtsright now. The committee is taking a careful approach to this issue becauseit's extremely important to veterinarians."

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