State high court decides the worth of a pet dog


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Georgia’s highest court on Monday ruled that pet owners can collect more than just the fair market value of their cherished animal when it’s injured or killed because of the negligence of others.

But the court also said owners could not collect damages for their pet’s sentimental value. “The unique human-animal bond, while cherished, is beyond legal measure,” Chief Justice Hugh Thompson wrote for a unanimous Georgia Supreme Court.

The court’s ruling said pet owners can recover any reasonable medical expenses they incur when trying to save their animals. And when determining the actual value of a lost pet, a jury can look beyond what was paid to purchase the animal; it can also consider attributes such as a pet’s training and temperament, the court said.

The case — followed by veterinary and kennel associations nationwide — involves a mixed-breed dachshund named Lola who was 8½ years old when she died of renal failure about nine months after being housed in an upscale Atlanta kennel in 2012.

Lola’s owners, attorneys Elizabeth and Bob Monyak, are suing Barking Hound Village, which has several kennels in the metro area. The Monyaks contend the kennel gave an anti-inflammatory drug to Lola instead of to the Monyaks’ other dog, a Labrador retriever named Callie who was also there while the family was on vacation in France.

Because of the mix-up, Lola developed acute kidney failure, the suit contends. Barking Hound Village denies wrongdoing.

The kennel had asked the Georgia Supreme Court to rule that because pets are considered property under the law, their owners can recover no more than the pets’ fair market value.

In Lola’s case, she was adopted from a rescue center, was not a pure breed or a show dog and had never generated revenue, the justices said, noting Lola’s market value was “non-existent or nominal.”

For that reason, Barking Hound Village’s position was that the Monyaks were not entitled to recover any of the $67,000 in medical expenses they paid to keep Lola alive. But the state high court flatly rejected that, saying the Monyaks could recover “reasonable” medical costs incurred for treating Lola if she became terminally ill because of the kennel’s negligence.

The American Kennel Club, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Cat Fanciers’ Association and the American Pet Products Association were among groups that filed a legal brief in support of Barking Hound Village before the state Supreme Court.

The court’s decision strikes the right balance, said Washington attorney Victor Schwartz, who represents the national trade groups.

“When there have been concrete, out-of-pocket expenses, courts have allowed the recovery of reasonable medical costs,” he said. “I think that’s a fair decision.”

But if the court had allowed plaintiffs to recover damages for the sentimental or emotional value of a lost pet, it would have created a ripple affect with rising insurance costs for vets and kennels being passed on to pet owners, Schwartz said.

Matthew Liebman, chief legal counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, called the ruling a partial win for pet owners. The defense fund had asked the court to allow the worth of a pet to be determined by both its actual and sentimental value.

Allowing the recovery of medical expenses eliminates any incentive for owners to let their animals die instead of paying the costs of treating them, he said.

But many pets are rescued from shelters and many are old and infirmed, Liebman said. “None of that makes them any less valuable to the people who share their lives with them.”

In its decision, the court said juries can consider more than just the price paid for a pet when determining market value.

“We see no reason why opinion evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, of an animal’s particular attributes — e.g., breed, age, training, temperament and use — should be any less admissible than similar evidence offered in describing the value of other types of personal property,” the court said. “The key is ensuring that such evidence relates to the value of the dog in a fair market, not the value of the dog solely to its owner.”

Both Barking Hound Village and the Monyaks declared victory.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision in our favor, and look forward to showing the lower court that (Barking Hound Village) did not cause any harm or damage,” the kennel’s spokeswoman, Liz Lapidus, said in a statement. “We remain passionate and strongly committed to the quality care of all dogs.”

Elizabeth Monyak, a lawyer at the state Attorney General’s Office, called the ruling “a total victory for us” because it allowed the recovery of medical expenses and said market value is not just determined by purchase price.

“They rejected Barking Hound’s argument that because Lola had no value, we could recover nothing,” she said. “She did have value. Lola was a very intelligent dog. She was very, very smart. She knew a lot.”