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Determining your pet's worth

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Pet owners have traditionally had an easier time getting reimbursed for veterinary bills if an animal is injured due to negligence or intentional cruelty. But it has been harder to prove that an animal's death should warrant more than the market value of the animal.

In the state of New Jersey, where Calogero practices, there is a precedent that says a person can sometimes receive damages for emotional distress if he or she sees a close family member killed. In a current case, Calogero is arguing that the owner of a Labrador retriever should receive damages for emotional distress after seeing a police officer kill the dog.

"In this particular case, my client did suffer extreme emotional distress, it was a loved one, it was a family member, but it wasn't a human being. I'm building on precedent. Considering the way people feel about animals, the law might be ripe to change."

There have been cases in which pet owners have received emotional damages, though the amounts have typically been in the low thousands. For example, in one landmark case in Hawaii in 1981, a pet owner was awarded $1,000 in emotional damages after a pet died as a result of negligence.  

Some states are more pet-friendly than others. In Tennessee, for example, there is a statute that says pet owners can seek up to $5,000 for emotional damages. In Rhode Island, those who have pets are recognized as "guardians" rather than merely "owners." (For a list of pending legislation state by state, visit the Humane Society Web site.)

"We will see settlements in the $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 range," says Tischler. "There are a few cases that have gone higher than that. You can count them on one hand where you'll see $50,000 or $75,000 awarded."

While the majority of states still recognize pets as personal property, each case that acknowledges the emotional toll of ownership strengthens the argument that pets' values should exceed that of mere possessions.

"There are more attorneys and there are more law schools offering courses in animal law," says Calogero. "There are more publications about it. And the body of case law is increasing. Every time there's a new case, we try to use that new precedent -- it's sort of like building stairs, building a staircase -- it's step-by-step."'s corrections policy -- Posted: July 6, 2007
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