Woman Can't Sue for Distress in Dog's Death, Court Says
Morris Plains resident will not be compensated for emotional distress she says she endured after witnessing her dog killed. But should court have ruled otherwise?
Sometimes the law just doesn't seem to provide justice.
Last Tuesday's ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court in a case emanating from Morris Plains is a good example.
The justices found that a pet is just a possession and a dog owner is not entitled to payment for the emotional distress of watching (wo)man's best friend killed.
Five years ago, Joyce McDougall took her 9-year-old maltipoo Angel for a walk one June day. Maltipoos are small and fluffy with distinctive faces. Adorable. A much larger dog ran out, grabbed Angel by the neck, shook the dog and dropped her, killing the animal right before her owner's eyes.
McDougall sued the dog's owner and won $5,000 in compensatory damages for Angel's death. But the court did not grant an award for emotional distress. McDougall's lawyer had argued such an award was warranted because New Jersey courts allow for such claims when a person suffers severe emotional distress after witnessing the death of a loved one.
But only a human.
The court had set the precedent for such an award in a prior case, ruling 32 years ago that a person could sue for emotional distress in certain circumstances when they see a relative die and suffer as a result. But the court's decision last week made a distinction between humans and pets, putting the latter into the same category as inanimate objects.
It's a tough call.
Pets are animals (except for those of the rock variety). They are living, breathing creatures that can kiss and snuggle and, it certainly seems, give love.
On the other hand, they are like objects. People buy them, or even get them for free. They can't carry on a conversation—not really. They have no earning power—those few who do work need human trainers.
Many humans do, though, rely on their pets, need them, love them. When everything is going wrong and the world is against you, man's best friend will always be there, with a wildly wagging tail, a series of wet licks and a warm cuddle.
For someone who lives alone, as McDougall did, a dog can be a best friend. A single person may spend more time with a pet than with children who have moved away, well-meaning neighbors, co-workers and friends.
It's more than just the dog being there for you, but being there for the pet; providing all the care—feeding, cleaning, walking. It creates a feeling of a reciprocal relationship, helping and providing for one another.
The loss of a pet by natural causes is devastating. There is no doubt that watching your best friend, even if he is just an animal, be killed would be traumatic, nightmare-evoking, emotionally distressing.
So shouldn't a person be able to receive compensation for that distress?
"We do not doubt that plaintiff was attached to her dog and that she had strong emotional ties to it," the justices wrote. "Although we recognize that many people form close bonds with their pets, we conclude that those bonds do not rise to the level of a close familial relationship or intimate, marital-like bond."
McDougall already got more compensation than she would have under normal circumstances, according to the court. She spent $200 in 1997 for Angel when she was a puppy, and estimated a new pup would cost about $1,400. The lower court awarded her $5,000 in compensatory damages because the dog was well-trained.
Neither state law, nor legal precedent, allows for the awarding of damages for emotional distress due to the loss of a pet, which is considered property, according to the the court. The court acknowledged that pets are more special property than inanimate objects, but a person cannot even sue for emotion damages when witnessing just anyone being killed, it has to be a very special loved one—a spouse or fiancee or a child.
"The bond shared between humans and animals is often an emotional and enduring one," the justices agreed. It's just not enough to overwrite state law.
McDougall had urged the court to consider pets as more special than just that of an object. Five other states have, in law or court action. New Jersey's Supreme Court declined to do so, though its decision intimated that the Legislature could if it rewrote the laws concerning wrongful death.
That would bring other repercussions—more lawsuits, more payouts. And is witnessing the death of a beloved pet really more traumatic than seeing a co-worker, neighbor or student killed? It would make for lively debate in Trenton.