Courts rule differently in two emotional distress cases


Pet owners in California, New Jersey sue for emotional distress, receive different results.

A California appeals court has upheld $50,000 in emotional damages suffered by a Laguna Niguel, Calif., couple when their neighbor hit their miniature Pinscher with a baseball bat.

While the ruling is being called the first pet-related emotional damages award to be upheld in the state of California, the opinion of Justice William Rylaarsdam of the Fourth District Court of Appeal emphasizes that the emotional damages are related not to negligence--as would be the case with a veterinarian’s error, which is unprecedented in state case law—but to the defendant’s actions of trespassing on the plaintiffs’ personal property and intentionally injuring their dog.

The plaintiffs, David and Joyce Plotnik, shared a history of legal action and altercations with the defendant, John Meihaus Jr., dating back to 2003. On April 9, 2009, David Plotnik heard a loud banging on the fence he shares with Meihaus, according to court documents. He opened the gate and the Plotniks’ miniture Pinscher, Romeo, ran into Meihaus’s backyard. When Plotnik lost sight of Romeo, he assumed the dog had run to the front of Meihaus’s residence and took to the street to find him.

“At that point, he heard Romeo barking and then squeal,” Rylaarsdam’s opinion reads. “He hurried home, arriving in time to see Romeo rolling down he slope through the open gate and hit a tree. Plotnik went through the gate and saw Meihaus holding a bat, returning to his house.”

Plotnik confronted Meihaus, asking why he had hit the dog. After a verbal exchange, Plotnik returned to his residence to find that Romeo was having difficulty walking, and he took the dog to the veterinarian. Romeo needed surgery to repair his right rear leg, costing $2,600.

The Plotniks eventually filed a lawsuit for this incident and others related to personal assault and breach of contract, which resulted in an initial award of $430,000. The appeals court reversed a good portion of that but upheld $160,000 plus attorneys’ fees, including the $50,000 emotional damages for Romeo’s injury.

On the other side of the country, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided on July 31 that a pet owner should not be permitted to recover damages for emotional distress after witnessing the traumatic death of her pet.

Joyce McDougall was walking her dog in June 2007 when “a large dog belonging to defendant Charlot Lamm ran out, grabbed plaintiff’s dog by the neck, and picked it up and shook it several times before dropping it,” causing the death of her dog, says a case syllabus prepared by the Office of the Clerk.

The trial court awarded McDougall $5,000 to compensate for the cost and loss of the dog but dismissed her claim of emotional distress, according to the syllabus, because New Jersey deems pets as personal property and “there is no cause of action in New Jersey that permits an emotional distress claim based on property loss.”

McDougall took her case to the New Jersey Appellate Court, which affirmed the decision of the trial court by saying there was no precedent to include loss of pets in emotional distress claims, and the state Supreme Court upheld that decision.

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