The Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled Tuesday that claims for emotional distress over the violent death of a family pet is not valid. While the Court does recognize that there is a strong bond between many pet owners and their animals it is not the same as watching a human family member die violently.
The ruling stemmed from a case involving Joyce McDougall’s 9-year-old Maltese poodle mix, Angel, which was mauled by a bigger mixed breed dog while being walked through their neighborhood in Morris Plains New Jersey, in 2007. McDougall filed a lawsuit against the other dogs owner Charlot Lamm for compensatory damages and emotional distress after seeing her dog violently killed.
A lower court ruled that McDougall be compensated for the loss of her dog and was awarded five times what a new puppy would cost to replace Angel. While this may seem fair, how do you put a price tag on losing a family member who was a constant companion to McDougall after her separation and three children left home? However, that is what the high court ruled.
The real issue it seems is the value of property, which pets are considered, and how much is “emotional distress worth”. The idea that a pet could be compared to a family heirloom shows that the courts categorize our pets as objects not living animals.
The courts biggest fear in its unanimous decision was that the judicial system would be clogged with emotional distress cases over the loss of personal property including pets. “Although we recognize that many people form close bonds with their pets, we conclude that those bonds do not rise to the level of a close familial relationship or intimate, marital-like bond,” Justice Helen Hoens wrote in her opinion.
Lawyers for both the plaintiff and defendant in this case believe the high court got the decision right and that by ruling the way they did was in the best interest of all. They believe that separating claims of real versus imagined emotional distress from the loss of property, including pets, would be a very difficult problem for the courts and juries. They also felt that the case was both painful and poignant.