Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Companion animals and emotional damages

Efforts to win the right to recover non-economic, or emotional, damages for injury or death to a companion animal is sort of like the Holy Grail for many animal law attorneys in private practice. As the Computer Desktop Encyclopedia defines it, "[a] very desired object or outcome that borders on a sacred quest."

Anyone who's ever enjoyed a friendship with a cat or a dog or a horse (or any other animal they've befriended for that matter) will tell you, intuitively, losing a companion animal is not like losing any other item. Not even a "valuable" item like a car or a home. But the legal system has turned a blind eye to that value since the beginning of recorded legal history - if not the entire history of human civilization. Persuading courts to see that value - and mind you I'm just talking about genuinely recognizing the value of animals to their owners, not acknowledging the value of an animal's life to itself or (heaven forbid...) taking animals out of property status - is one of the great challenges facing animal law today.

As I've blogged before, the hard-fought expansion of other rights is worth studying: civil rights, women's rights and, most recently, gay/lesbian rights. For example, in 1999 the Vermont supreme court became the first in the country to rule that same-sex partners have the right to the benefits of marriage, even if not the title. Slowly but surely other states began jumping on board, and even going a step farther. Massachusetts legalized such unions in May 2004. California's supreme court did likewise this past June, and it has already surpassed the Bay State in the number of gay couples wed. Connecticut became the 3rd state to recognize same-sex unions when its state supreme court overturned the ban this past Friday.

Now, Vermont once again may lead the nation on another social issue. A case is presently pending before the Vermont Supreme Court on the issue of whether individuals can recover non-economic damages for the death of their companion animals. Robert and Susan Goodby filed suit after their two cats died due to toxic medication. The Vermont Supreme Court heard the Goodby case on Sept 25th and a decision is expected within the next few months. Click here if you would like to listen to the oral arguments (scroll down to 2:00 p.m.)

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