Number of Malpractice Cases Spikes ... for Pets ; Animal Owners Are Suing Vets for Emotional Damages, Testing the Legal Definition of 'Pets' as Property

Article excerpt

When attorney Robert Newman lectures at veterinarians' conventions, he brings along his Chihuahua, Ruben.

Mr. Newman begins his talk by telling the audience that he paid $23 for Ruben at an animal shelter. Then the little dog trots on stage. Ruben sits, speaks, plays dead, rolls over, gives Newman a high-five.

"Then I pick him up and I ask, 'How many of you believe that if I bring Ruben to you and you do something wrong that results in his death and you give me $23, that you've made me whole? Raise your hands,' " says Newman.

But there's always silence and no one raises their hands, says the attorney. "They know that a fair-market value approach to a companion animal is a joke, an insult."

It used to be that if a pet died on the operating table or was seriously injured due to human carelessness the owner had little legal recourse. Courts typically defined pets as property, and limited damages to the assessed value of the animal.

But that is changing.

For one thing, state legislatures are starting to reform their animal-protection laws. New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are considering legislation granting pet owners the right to sue for pain and suffering damages, including punitive damages for neglect or abuse. Tennessee enacted such a law in 2000 and Illinois passed a version of the law last year. West Virginia has removed caps that once limited damages to the assessed value of a pet.

The trend is part of a growing push to recast pet owners as "guardians" in the eyes of the law, a shift that has some legal scholars worried. Some warn that these specific changes in tort law could bring a wave of frivolous litigation and increases in the price of veterinary care. Others question the move to classify animals as something more than property. Animal-rights activists, on the other hand, welcome such legislation, claiming it might help owners recover substantial damages.

"This is not seen as silly or crazy any more," says Joyce Tischler, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "Protecting companion animals is not just something a crazy little old lady in tennis shoes would do. It has touched a nerve with legislators, with judges, and with all sorts of others who consider animals as part of the family."

Subtle shifts in the law

Other legal changes also are under way. The newest revision of the Uniform Probate and Trust Code - the legal structure underlying the disposition of property after a person's death - includes guarantees on trust funds to care for pets. The rules have been adopted by 19 states.

Further, some government bodies are changing the terminology used to describe animals, a move animal-rights activists say is essential to distinguish them from "chattel," a legal definition of property that includes everything from household furniture to livestock. …