Emotional Damages


Content Warning

This article contains content that may be troubling for some readers. (animal abuse, death)

“Mere Property” or Beloved Family Member?

How does your state treat an animal owner’s emotional suffering or the pain and suffering of the animal itself, when a pet has been harmed by someone’s negligent or intentional conduct?

There is significant divergence among the states in how (and if) a pet owner’s emotional damages will be compensated for when someone has killed or harmed their animal. Some states will take into account the loss of companionship, love, and affection of the animal as part of the owner’s overall damage calculation from an underlying claim.

Some states go a step further and allow pet owners to bring independent causes of action for their emotional harms, such as an intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress claim.

Other states do not take an animal owner’s harms into account at all, because, according to these states, pets are “mere property”. Instead, courts in these states defer to the legislature to enact statutes that allow damage awards for emotional harms owners suffer when their pets are injured or killed.

When Emotional Harms Are Allowed in the Overall Damage Assessment

In certain states and in certain circumstances, courts will allow a pet owner’s emotional harms to be included in their overall damage award from an underlying claim. This typically occurs when the defendant has engaged in some type of intentional misconduct. An owner’s emotional harm was calculated in her overall damage assessment in a case where a neighbor intentionally struck a dog with a bat in front of the dog’s owner, and in another case when a garbage collector maliciously killed a dog in front of the dog’s owner. Emotional harms were calculated by the court as part of an overall damage assessment when a neighbor intentionally shot to death a mare and foal, and in another case when a defendant intentionally set her neighbor’s cat on fire.

In a case involving an animal cremation service, emotional anguish was considered as part of an owner’s overall damage award when a dog owner made elaborate burial arrangements for the dog, only to find the remains of a dead cat inside the casket. The owner attempted, but was not allowed, to bring a separate intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against the service provider.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims Allowed in Some States

In most states, in order for a plaintiff to prevail on an intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) claim they must prove 1. the defendant intentionally or recklessly inflicted severe emotional distress; 2. the conduct was so extreme and outrageous so to exceed all possible bounds of decency; and 3. the plaintiff suffers severe emotional distress.

In one case, a woman received a jury award of over $121,000 for an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim she brought against her neighbor. The neighbor agreed to “free-lease” two of the woman’s horses, but instead of caring for the horses and making them available to the woman whenever she wanted to visit, as the woman and neighbor initially agreed, the neighbor sold the horses soon after the exchange to a known slaughter buyer.

The woman was never able to track down the horses before they were slaughtered. The jury awarded the woman $1,000.00 in compensation for the fair market value of the horses, $50,000.00 in damages for the woman’s emotional harms, and $70,000.00 in punitive damages.

Whether or not a court will allow an animal owner to recover for an IIED claim depends heavily upon state law.

Contrast that case with this one, where a dog owner’s IIED claim was dismissed because, according to the court, the outrageous conduct was directed at the dog and not the owner.

In that case, a veterinarian performed surgery on dog and when the owner arrived sometime later to pick up her animal, she was told the dog suffered a heart attack during surgery and died. Several days later, two veterinarian technicians who were present during the day of the surgery contacted the owner and advised her that it was not a heart attack that killed her dog. Rather, the veterinarian, as he was trying to get the dog up the stairs from the basement where the surgery was performed, viscously and repeatedly hit the dog causing the dog to fall backwards down the stairs. The owner sued the veterinarian for IIED, among other causes of action. The court dismissed the IIED claim because, according to the court, the veterinarian’s conduct was not directed at the owner, his conduct was instead directed at the dog.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims Allowed in Some States

Typically, in order for a plaintiff to prevail on a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim (NIED), the plaintiff must prove: (1) the Defendant’s negligence caused death or injury; (2) the Plaintiff was in close proximity to the accident; (3) the Plaintiff is closely related to the victim; (4) the Plaintiff sees the accident as it happens; and (5) the Plaintiff suffers such emotional distress that it manifests itself into physical symptoms – diagnosed and established by an expert.

In one case, the court was not willing to allow the animal owner to recover for NIED when a veterinarian negligently killed a horse during surgery. According to the court, because the owner had no manifestation of physical symptoms of their distress, did not witness the death, and did not have a close enough relationship to the animal, the NIED claim was dismissed. The horse owner, however, was able to recover the fair market value of the horse for her veterinary malpractice claim.

Certain State Laws Allow Emotional Damage Recovery

Many courts defer to the legislative branch to enact laws that allow pet owners to recover for their emotional harms, and in some states, the legislative branches have done just that. For instance, the state of Tennessee allows for up to $5,000 in non-economic (emotional) damages for the loss of companionship of a pet – veterinarians, however, are specifically exempt. The state of Illinois allows up to $25,000 in noneconomic damages in cases that involve torture and/or aggravated cruelty. In the state of Oregon, the Oregon Supreme Court has construed an anti-cruelty statute as defining the animal, not the owner, as the victim of the crime.

As with any legal issue, the answer to whether an animal owner’s emotional harms can be recoverable in a lawsuit depends heavily on state law. If your animal has been injured by the hands of another, consider contacting a knowledgeable attorney licensed in your state.

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