Pet Valuation – Pets as Property or Pets as People?

Kegler Brown Litigation Newsletter

Animal law is a practice area that is undergoing a radical, albeit small-scale, transformation.    The change in the law is almost certainly due to an increased focus on pets as beloved members of the family.  American pet owners spent an estimated $41 billion on their pets in 2007.  More and more products and services are aimed at pet owners -- pet strollers, "doggie daycare," and pet funeral services, to name a few. 

Animal law is not a new area.  Some laws affecting animals have been on the books for decades, such as statutes preventing cruelty to animals.  More recent developments in animal law include puppy "lemon laws" aimed at puppy mills, pet custody battles wherein the pet's best interests are determinative, and even legal actions for a pet's "wrongful death."  Whether you think these developments are frivolous or farsighted, an interesting debate has arisen over how to value a pet's life.

Questions over pet valuation arise because of the damages component of proving a lawsuit.  Traditionally, pets are treated purely as property.  The amount of compensation allowed for damaged property is typically the replacement cost of the property.  In other words, damage to a living dog is treated no differently than damage to a statue of a dog.  For example, a generous estimate of the replacement cost of a dog adopted from an animal shelter might be $50.  That value would not change regardless of the value that the dog provided as a companion animal or the money that the owners invested in the dog's health.  

The obvious criticism of the traditional valuation model is that it does not take into account the emotional value of a pet in modern day America, where pets are pampered and sometimes even included in family photos.  Courts in some states, including Kentucky, have changed the way that pets are valued.  The courts have not gone so far as to award damages for the animal's pain and suffering, but they have allowed special damages for owners' loss of companionship, emotional damages, and pets' sentimental value.  The Ohio Supreme Court has recognized "joy and closeness often experienced between people and dogs," but thus far continues to follow the traditional valuation model.

Switching to a valuation model that accounts for the pet owner's emotional connection with their pet could arguably hurt animals, and even people, in the long run.  For example, veterinarians would presumably purchase malpractice insurance to protect themselves, and the cost of the insurance would be passed on to other owners seeking treatment for their pets.  Higher vet bills could then lead to fewer pet owners seeking treatment for their pets.  Beyond the impact on pets, a change in pet valuation could conceivably provide ammunition to lawsuits seeking to end the use of animals in medical research and other non-companion functions that animals fill.  It remains to be seen how other courts balance a pet's status as property with the special role that pets fill in many people's lives.