Wisc. decision may up ante on malpractice claims

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Wisconsin Supreme Court justices are expected in the near future to decide if compensation for emotional distress and loss of companionship can be awarded to a pet owner whose dog was killed by an off-duty police officer.

Madison, Wis.-Wisconsin Supreme Court justices are expected in the nearfuture to decide if compensation for emotional distress and loss of companionshipcan be awarded to a pet owner whose dog was killed by an off-duty policeofficer.

A decision in the plaintiff's favor would enable more lawsuits to compensateowners for more than the fair market value of pets in cases of wrongfulinjury, veterinary malpractice or death.

To date, U.S. laws recognized pets as property, often ruling out largeawards. But experts now say they're routinely seeing small animal claimsin excess of $20,000.

If Wisconsin's high court and other judicial forums permit animal ownersto sue for emotional distress, the consequences could alter the veterinaryinsurance industry and the practice of veterinary medicine.

Wisconsin is not alone in addressing the issue. In California, Dr. WilliamGrant, Southern California Veterinary Medical Association (SCVMA) president,has worked as a veterinary insurance consultant for 10 years and says whilethe state's court system isn't hearing any emotional distress cases, he'sseen a sharp increase in the number of veterinary malpractice claims.

Grant attributes the increased litigation to the larger awards beinggranted.

"The larger awards have been primarily in the equine sector wherethey can sometimes get up in the $100,000 range," he says. "Pendingnow are $100,000 suits for small animals, which was unheard of five yearsago."

Even as the situation continues to unfold, the American Veterinary MedicalAssociation (AVMA) says it does not hold a position on pets being regardedas property.

That's because the issue is sticky, says Dr. Gail Golab, AVMA officialand human-animal bond expert, but the organization is acknowledging relatedproblems.

In municipalities such as Berkeley, local authorities have changed ordinancesto define pet owners as guardians. These efforts are designed to raise thepublic's regard toward animals, not to change compensation laws, but itnevertheless creates a gray area, Golab says.

"It sort of leaves the animal in a state of limbo as to exactlywhat it is, and any time something is open to interpretation, it will be."

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