Valuing Fido

Devon P. Cobb, KLJ Staff Editor[1]

If you had to put a dollar value on your pet right now, how big would that number be? The Supreme Court of Georgia is currently considering this issue for awarding damages to pet owners in a negligence suit.  Bob and Elizabeth Monyak lost their eight-year-old Dachshund, Lola, after employees of the Barking Hound Village kennel gave her the wrong medicine.[2]  The Monyak’s contend that Lola was undoubtedly of value; they hope to recover at least $70,000, the amount they had spent on Lola’s veterinary bills attempting to counteract the damage done by the wrongly-proscribed medication.[3]

The owners of the kennel claim that the dog at issue was merely property; according to Mrs. Monyak, the kennel believes that “a dog is like a toaster… when you break it, you throw it away and get a new one.”[4]  It is difficult to place a value on Lola because the Monyaks paid nothing for her when they adopted her from a shelter.[5]  In arguing that Lola has no remedial value, the kennel’s owners claim that the “purchase price of the Dachsund was zero dollars, the rescue dog never generated revenue, and nothing occurred during the Monyaks’ ownership of the dog that would have increased her market value.”[6]  Pet owners worldwide will surely be outraged if the court returns a verdict deciding that adopted pets are easily replaceable and have no value.

Compensatory damages are generally recovered under one of three valuations: replacement cost, cost to repair, or market value.  If Lola had been purchased from a breeder for money, the court could have simply held that Lola’s original cost is the proper amount owed to the Monyaks.  However, they paid nothing for the dog, so this remedy is unavailable.  Furthermore, if the court desired to award the purchase price of the dog to the Monyaks, the price should be adjusted to account for the increase in value of a dog that is properly trained— similar to the valuation of a show dog or horse. Awarding the Monyaks the replacement cost of the dog would also be unjust.

When deciding whether to award market value or replacement cost, should pet owners be compensated for the benefits of day-to-day companionship they receive from their pets?[7]  In a recent study conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association, pet owners admitted to talking to their pets, indicating a friendship benefit that should surely be considered when deciding a pet’s value to the owner.[8]

Michael Wells, a University of Georgia Law professor, believes “pet dogs have value beyond their market value.  The same goes for other properties, like a treasured family photo.”[9]  An argument should be made for pets to be valued as “sentimental” property, in which the property’s worth to the owner can be exponentially greater than its market value.  Because of this possibly immense difference between an object’s subjective value and its objective market value, most jurisdictions will award damages above fair market price for such types of property.[10]  Stephanie Wells, the Executive Director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, explains how “[e]veryone knows dogs are family and more than mere property.  Courts across the nation are recognizing that beloved family members like Lola have intrinsic value—and when they are injured or killed by negligence, that value must be reflected in the damages their families are entitled to by law.”[11]

Pet owners could also seek court awards for pain and suffering from loss of their pet,[12] as well as punitive damages from defendants;[13] this could serve as a way of punishing the wrongdoers, compensating the owners for their emotional distress, and hopefully deterring future malicious behavior.  Kentucky has already allowed for this type of recovery in one case.  In 2001, punitive damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress were awarded to owners whose horses had been sold to slaughter by the boarders with whom the owners had contracted to keep the horses.[14]  The Kentucky Court of Appeals rejected the standard that “the proper award of damages for the loss or damage to an animal is the value of that animal, not emotional damages for that loss.”[15]  However, because the jury award did not address any specific valuation of the animals, the standard for determining a pet’s worth remains open in Kentucky.

The issue of valuing pets will undoubtedly raise a plethora of problems in different factual scenarios; take that of a service dog, for example, where the owner is more dependent on the pet.  Robin Ganzert, the President and CEO of the American Humane Association, has argued that pets are priceless; she states, for example, that dogs can help children with cancer,[16] and that research shows that pets can save owners billions in medical bills.[17] She also ponders how one could possibly place a value on bomb-sniffing dogs which save human lives, not to mention the companionship that support animals provide for soldiers on the war front and when they return home.[18]  How should pets, which have significant worth to their owners, be valued when they also contribute to public welfare?

Stay tuned for the Georgia Supreme Court’s holding regarding the valuation of a family pet. Although it won’t likely change how you feel about your fluffy one, their standard could set the bar for states that have yet to face this hairy issue.

[1] J.D. Expected May 2017.
[2] See Court considers how much a dog is worth, Fox News, Jan. 19, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/01/19/court-considers-how-much-dog-is-worth.html.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7]  To learn more about the bond humans have with animals, see Wayne Pacelle, The Bond (2011).
[8] See Jennifer Horton, Can pets make you happy?, How Stuff Works — Science, http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/pets-happiness2.htm (describing a study conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association, wherein ninety seven percent of pet owners reported that they talk to their pet).
[9] Bill Rankin, Supreme Court must decide the value of a dog, The Atlantic Journal—Constitution (Jan. 18, 2016, 6:44 PM), http://www.myajc.com/news/news/local/supreme-court-must-decide-the-value-of-a-dog/np7Kj.
[10] See John W. Reis, Measure of Damages in Property Loss Cases, LXXVI The Florida Bar, No. 9 (2002) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 929 cmt. B (Am. Law Inst. 1979)).
[11] Court considers how much a dog is worth, Fox News, Jan. 19, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/01/19/court-considers-how-much-dog-is-worth.html.
[12] Courts could reasonably find that pet owners contracted with the kennel to provide veterinary services and that the kennel could have reasonably foreseen the mental anguish that would fall upon owners as a result of subpar care or fraudulent or misrepresentative conduct to award damages for pain and suffering.  See Erlich v. Menezes, 981 P.2d 978 (Cal. 1999).
[13] See A. Mitchell Polinsky & Steve Shavell, Punitive Damages: An Economic Analysis, 111 Harv. L. Rev. 869 (1998).
[14] See Burgess v. Taylor, 44 S.W.3d 806 (Ky. App. 2001).
[15] Burgess, 44 S.W.3d at 812. Cf. Ammon v. Welty, 113 S.W.3d 185 (Ky. App. 2002) (deciding that the shooting of a family dog by the County’s dog warden did not amount to intentional infliction of emotional distress or loss of consortium).
[16] Robin Ganzert, A dog’s life is priceless: My message for the Georgia Supreme Court, Fox News, Jan. 19, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2016/01/19/dogs-life-is-priceless-my-message-for-georgia-supreme-court.html.
[17] See id. (stating that “dog owners generally need fewer physician visits and fewer obesity treatments than the non-dog owning population.”).
[18] Id.
*Featured image by University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences, licensed under CC BY 2.0.