Friday, May 21, 2010

Between Chattel And Children

The Vermont Supreme Court held today that a bereaved dog owner can only recover the replacement cost of their murdered pet:

This case asks the Court to decide the proper measure of damages for the loss of a family dog.  Plaintiffs Sarah and Denis Scheele appeal from a judgment denying them recovery for emotional damages for the intentional killing of their pet dog, Shadow.  Though plaintiffs recovered $155 in economic damages for the destruction of their property, the issue is whether they are entitled to damages for emotional distress or loss of companionship as a result of Shadow’s death.  They claim that the real worth of a pet is not merely financial and cannot be measured solely by the replacement value.  Thus, they argue, their emotional suffering—the result of defendant’s malicious and intentional acts—warrants noneconomic damages.  The Washington Superior Court barred such recovery, holding that Vermont does not recognize noneconomic damages for the malicious destruction of personal property, even when the property is a beloved pet.  We affirm.

The court recited the stipulated facts:

In July 2003, plaintiffs were visiting from their home in Maryland when they stopped in the parking lot of a church in Northfield, Vermont.  While in the lot, their unleashed dog, Shadow, wandered onto an adjacent property.  The owner of that property, defendant Lewis Dustin, was sitting on his porch with a pellet gun planning to shoot at squirrels.  When Shadow came into his yard, defendant aimed his pellet gun at Shadow and shot, killing Shadow.  Shadow had not exhibited any aggressive behavior towards defendant, nor posed any threat to him, nor was defendant in any physical danger at the time he fired his gun at Shadow.  Shadow died as a result of a pellet shot to the aorta valve resulting in a hemorrhage.  The shooting of Shadow by defendant was intentional and malicious.  Plaintiffs stood nearby and observed the impact of the shot on their dog and Shadow’s immediate pain and death shortly thereafter.

The court noted that pets fall "somewhere between chattel and children" in the eyes of the law. (Mike Frisch)

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