For many of us, our pets are considered members of the family. We would never assign our beloved dog or cat a monetary value. Unfortunately, when an animal is injured or killed due to the negligence of another party, the courts need some way to determine the damages owed to the owner.
Barking Hound Village, LLC v. Monyak
The Georgia Supreme Court recently addressed this issue. The plaintiffs in this case placed their two dogs—a mixed-breed dachshund and a Labrador retriever—with an Atlanta kennel for 10 days. The retriever required regular doses of arthritis medication, which the plaintiffs provided to the kennel with appropriate instructions. But according to the plaintiffs, the kennel instead gave the drug to their dachshund, causing the dog to suffer renal failure. The plaintiffs said they spent upwards of $10,000 over a nine-month period before the dog ultimately died.
The plaintiffs subsequently sued the kennel for negligence. Before the trial court, the kennel argued any losses suffered by the plaintiffs should be “capped at the dog’s fair market value.” While many dogs have monetary value as pure-breeds or show dogs, the plaintiff’s dachshund did not. The dog had been adopted from a rescue kennel and “her market value to the public at-large was non-existent or nominal” according to court records. Accordingly, the kennel argued the lawsuit should be dismissed as the dog was worthless.
But both the trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals determined that in the absence of any “fair market value,” the plaintiffs should alternatively be allowed to seek damages based on the “actual value of the dog to them,” that is the plaintiffs themselves. The kennel appealed this holding to the Georgia Supreme Court.
In a June 6 decision, the Supreme Court unanimously held “the Court of Appeals erred in deciding that application of an actual value to owner standard was the appropriate measure of recoverable damages, but additionally find that a cap on all damages based on application of the fair market value standard as urged by defendants is likewise incorrect.” Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, writing for the Court, said that even if the plaintiffs’ dog had no “fair market value,” they could still seek “the recovery of expenses incurred in keeping and treating the animal during the period of its disability.” In other words, the plaintiffs’ total damages was equal to the fair market value of the dog plus any “reasonable medical costs and treatment.” It would be up to a jury to decide what constitutes “reasonable” expenses under the facts of this case.
The chief justice also said the plaintiffs could not recover any damages based solely on the “sentimental value” of their dog. A number of animal welfare groups filed “friend of the court” briefs asking the Supreme Court to hold just that. But the chief justice explained that Georgia law has never recognized such claims. He noted the “unique human-animal bond, while cherished, is beyond legal measure.”