Americans spent $60 billion on their companion animals last year. A majority of pet owners share their beds with furry friends. People take their dogs to work, create Instagram accounts for them and help them complete bucket lists. People, it’s clear, increasingly think of pets as family — or fellow people.
The law, however, sees pets very differently: They are property, like a car or a toaster.
Now the Supreme Court of Georgia is mulling the disconnect between those two views. In a case that could be decided next month, judges are considering whether a rescue mutt whose death was allegedly caused by a kennel’s negligence had the value of a used toaster — zilch — or a value relative to how the dog’s owners felt about her and the $67,000 they spent to save her.
In short: How much is a pet dog worth?
The dog in question was an 8-year-old dachshund mix named Lola. She had been adopted from a shelter by Bob and Elizabeth Monyak of Atlanta, two attorneys with three children and a Labrador retriever named Callie.
In 2012, the family took a vacation to France. Thirteen-year-old Callie and Lola, 8, were checked into The Inn, one of five Atlanta-area kennels run by Barking Hound Village that advertises its “private suites and secluded areas for rest and relaxation.” The Monyaks gave special instructions to caretakers: Callie, who had arthritis, needed to take Rimadyl, an anti-inflammatory.
The Monyaks said in an interview that when they picked the dogs up, Lola had no appetite. The next day, she was trembling. A veterinarian diagnosed acute renal failure, almost certainly from an overdose of Rimadyl. Nine months later, after treatment from Atlanta veterinarians and multiple dialysis treatments in Florida, Lola died. The Monyaks sued the kennel, alleging — and saying in court filings that they have evidence — that Barking Hound Village’s employees incorrectly gave Callie’s medication to Lola. Barking Hound Village strongly denies that.
But the question that has made its way to the state’s highest court is not about whether the kennel caused Lola’s death. It’s about what damages the Monyaks are owed. Barking Hound Village argues that Lola was property, and the Monyaks are entitled only to her “market value” — which, because she was a free rescue mutt, is nothing. The Monyaks want to recover the $67,000 in veterinary and other expenses they say they spent, and they also want a jury to be able to consider Lola’s “actual value” to their family, such as their feelings for her.
“Our position is a dog is not fungible. It’s not like you throw it in the trash can and get another dog,” Elizabeth Monyak said. “We didn’t want another 8-year-old dachshund. We wanted Lola.”
The case is a classic example of the divide between the public’s beliefs about the value of pets and the law’s colder view of them as property, said David Favre, a law professor and expert on animal law at Michigan State University. A few legal changes have chipped at the edges of this boundary, he said, noting that people can now create trust provisions for their pets, which is an acknowledgement that they aren’t the same kind of property as a table or lawnmower.
But when it comes to damages for the death of a pet, state supreme courts have usually knocked down trial and appellate court decisions that award emotional or “non-economic” damages, Favre said, because they view it as a slippery slope. (Separately, a small number of states have enacted legislation on recoverable damages in such cases; Tennessee dog or cat owners, for example, can recover up to $5,000 “for the loss of the reasonably expected society, companionship, love and affection of the pet.”)
Courts more often allow juries to award damages for “reasonable” veterinary costs, Favre said, though some are wary of leaving that judgment in juries’ hands.
“Is that loss of companionship worth $10,000?” said Favre, who added that he did not think many juries would consider $67,000 reasonable. “That may depend on who’s in the room and how much of a pet lover they are.”
That is one argument made by Barking Hound Village and supporters that filed an amicus brief, including the American Veterinary Medical Association. Wealthy people can spend more to treat their pets, so they would be awarded more, they argue. And allowing compensation beyond the pet’s market value would lead to increased liability for people who care for dogs and more litigation, which would lead to higher fees for their services. That’s not the “pro-pet position,” the amicus brief said.
Veterinarians and others’ liability would rise “solely upon the abstract value of the injured animal to its owner and the owner’s financial means to care for the animal,” Barking Hound argued in a court filing.
The Monyaks reject those arguments, as do their backers, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund. A property owner’s ability to incur costs for repair is not usually an issue in other property damage cases, they say, and allowing “non-economic damages” would help people whose pets, unlike Lola, died before they could be treated.
What’s more, the Monyaks say, the kennel’s argument is hypocritical: Such places profit off human-animal bonds and people’s willingness to spend money on their pets, and now they argue that a rescue dog has no value?
“The amount people spend on pets would be irrational if they didn’t have a value greater than their market value,” Bob Monyak said. “No one would spend $1,000 to fix a $10 toaster.”
Barking Hound Village’s lawyer, Joel McKie, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the kennel was “sympathetic” to the Monyaks but said the company was not at fault. In its brief, the company summed up its view of Lola like this: She was free, she never generated revenue, and the Monyaks didn’t do anything that increased her value to the public.
“The mixed-breed dachshund had no special training or unique characteristics,” the kennel argued, “other than that of ‘family dog.'”