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Expert crafts system to calculate lifetime costs of animals


YARDLEY, PA. — As the profession's watchdogs suggest lawsuits seeking emotional distress damages against veterinarians are on the rise, one lawyer/DVM expert has created the means for calculating and increasing pet worth apart from non-economic relief.

YARDLEY, PA. — As the profession's watchdogs suggest lawsuits seeking emotional distress damages against veterinarians are on the rise, one lawyer/DVM expert has created the means for calculating and increasing pet worth apart from non-economic relief.

Table 1: Establishing replacement costs for pets

Dr. Jim Wilson, a consultant from Yardley, Pa., has introduced what he claims could stave off the movement to price the emotional value of pets among the nation's courts and legislatures. While animals, for the most part, are considered personal property by the law, owners seeking redress in malpractice cases long to sue veterinarians for more than the purchase price of their pets.

One answer designed to alleviate the discontent, Wilson suggests, is a spreadsheet that attempts to ascertain how much money an owner has invested during a pet's lifetime, or the cost of keeping the animal alive. Drawing from American Veterinary Medical Association, American Pet Products Manufacturers Association and other published survey statistics, Wilson breaks down costs associated with owning cats and dogs, according to size. The "genius" of the worksheet is that it can be adapted to fit the level of expense documentation owners can provide, he says.

"Eventually some attorney will probably want to use this in a case to try to demonstrate that market value is an inappropriate legal measurement," Wilson says. "A pet is more than just an animal. You're never going to stop the war with emotional damages. This spreadsheet ought to be allowed as a means for a more realistic assessment of the harmed party's damages."

Calculating worth

For example, owners who adopt a small dog that lives 15 years but didn't keep documentation of the expenditures during the pet's lifetime might have spent $532 in one-time expenses that include the purchase price, obedience training, fencing and crating, among other assets. Intermittent expenses of $246 might include collars, hair combs and transportation while annual expenses of food, veterinary care, stain removers, grooming and treats might reach as much as $4,411.50 for a total lifetime cost of up to $11,884.41.

"Not all these things should be recoverable," Wilson says. "You can't recover gas in your car, but you should be able to recover those unique things that are specific to your pet. This allows for the pet family member to then be recoverable beyond its market value. This illustrates that the pet is not a disposable piece of property."

Dangerous inception

Not everyone approves of Wilson's assessment. Kent McClure, DVM, JD, contends the system amounts to a threshold predicate that is "over-broad" and recasts non-economic damages as economic. As general counsel for the Animal Health Institute, he says: "What a pet is worth to a human being is not the same monetary value in the courtroom. We frame the debate wrong when we say society values its animals."

Wilson has "invented a scheme to award more money," McClure continues. "He's created a non-economic award within this extremely elaborate formula, but he's calling it something else. You're setting yourself up for someone to eventually say, 'Let's call it what it really is — non-economic relief,' which will greatly increase litigation."

The system also leaves room for fraud and windfalls, McClure says. If an owner recovers for an invisible fence, they gain the money but still have the fence, he says. "That doesn't fit with compensatory damages, which are designed to make the plaintiff whole," he adds.

Other uses

Wilson contends his alternative proposal for economic expansion is structured to prevent such a stretch, making it appropriate in narrow damage cases.

Beyond the system's legal uses, it provides an outline for owners to evaluate the long-term cost of animal ownership as well as a natural addition to veterinarians' discussions regarding pet selection.

"Veterinarians can set aside 45 minutes for a pet selection appointment, and walk clients through this by species, breed and size to contemplate the lifetime ownership costs," Wilson says. "It also illustrates the importance of buying pet insurance."

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