Court OKs Emotional Distress Damages for Owners Of Battered Dog
By Scott Graham The Recorder
September 4, 2012
SAN FRANCISCO — John Meihaus Jr. says he was only acting in self-defense when a neighbor’s miniature pinscher ran onto his property and began barking at him. Meihaus grabbed a baseball bat and used it to “guide” the 12-inch-tall, 15-pound dog back onto David and Joyce Plotnik’s property.
The Plotniks sued Meihaus not only for their subsequent $2,600 in veterinary bills, but for the mental anguish they suffered over the injury to their beloved Romeo.
Late last week, the California Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld $50,000 in emotional distress damages for the couple, becoming the first California appellate court to recognize emotional distress damages for injury to a pet.
[PD note: This is an unusual case where there was a type of restraining order already in place and the incident was not deemed to be negligent, but intentional. We think that ARs will try and run with this case and apply it to every case where an animal is allegedly harmed—and don’t say we didn’t warn everyone!]
“We believe good cause exists to allow the recovery of damages for emotional distress under the circumstances of this case,” Justice William Rylaarsdam wrote in Plotnik v. Meihaus, noting that courts in Washington, Florida and Louisiana have ruled similarly.
Whether pets are worth more than their “market value” has been at issue in rulings from Texas to Colorado in just the last year. Those cases involved mere negligence, though, whereas the case decided Monday alleged intentional injury.
The Plotniks and Meihaus had been in a long-running dispute over a fence that divided their property. A previous suit had been settled with the parties agreeing not to harass, vex or annoy each other. Still, the Plotniks alleged, Meihaus would make obscene gestures when they passed him on the street, and he had warned Joyce Plotnik not to let Romeo urinate on other people’s lawns.
On April 9, 2009, David Plotnik heard loud banging on the fence. He opened a gate to see what was going on and Romeo ran onto Meihaus’ property. He heard the dog bark and squeal, then saw it roll back through the gate and hit a tree. “Why did you hit our dog?” Plotnik testified he yelled at Meihaus. “You need to be more courteous and get your dogs to stop barking,” he said Meihaus told him.
The Plotkins sued Meihaus for violating their settlement agreement and for negligent and emotional distress on a variety of grounds. The jury awarded the couple $431,000 plus $94,000 in attorneys fees against Meihaus and two of his adult children.
On appeal the Fourth District threw out parts of the award, calling them duplicative or unsupported by the evidence. But the court upheld the damages related to Romeo — and the attorneys fees — under the theory that Meihaus had trespassed on the Plotniks’ personal property.
Rylaarsdam said California cases have disallowed emotional distress damages for injuries to animals caused by negligence, such as a veterinarian’s error. But, the justice noted, intentionally hurting an animal is different.
It can be a crime and doing it willfully or through gross negligence can lead to punitive damages. He also cited the 1889 ruling Johnson v. McConnell, 80 Cal 545, in which the California Supreme Court said of dogs, “there are no other domestic animals to which the owner or his family can become more strongly attached, or the loss of which will be more keenly felt.” [PD note: Remember this case, which is used by ARs, when and if the ARs take, seize or injure your animals]
Donna Bader of Laguna Beach argued the case for the Plotniks. Jim Mahacek of Costa Mesa’s Law Offices of Steven R. Young argued for Meihaus. http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/G045885.PDF
But see for example, below….courts awarding such damages are in distinct minority and as property, pets generally do not command emotional distress damages…..
Seeing Animal die not the same as seeing Relative killed
In what is likely a precedent setting case, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the horror of watching an animal die is not the same as seeing a close relative killed.
In 2007 a Morris Plains woman witnessed her neighbor’s dog kill her 9-year-old Maltese-poodle mix.
Joyce McDougall sued and a lower court awarded her $5,000 in damages for the value of the dog, but denied her claim of emotional distress.
Under New Jersey law, people can sue for damages for emotional distress if they see someone close to them die, the court said. The right had been limited to close family members, and was recently expanded by courts to people with a “marital-like bond,” the New York Times reported.
McDougall had hoped to show that pet owners should be awarded damages for emotional distress, too.
But the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled last week that people’s relationships with pets do not reach the same level as human relationships.
“The bond shared between humans and animals is often an emotional and enduring one. Permitting it to support a recovery for emotional distress, however, would require either that we vastly expand the classes of human relationships that would qualify for Portee damages or that we elevate relationships with animals above those we share with other human beings,” the court ruled, referring to a case, Portee v. Jaffee, that set out the rules. “We conclude that neither response to the question presented would be sound.”
McDougall’s lawyer said that the decision reflected a distrust of juries’ ability to dispense fair awards.
Some legal experts suggested state legislatures could seek legislative remedies to those who witness a beloved pet’s violent death by establishing limits on emotional duress awards.
Without question, pets are playing an increasingly important role in people’s lives. Witness the fact the Pennsylvania Bar Institute’s offers animal law as part of its continuing educational programs in three locations across the state this summer as it has for nine years.
We clone our pets. We fight over them in divorce cases. We name them in our wills.We spend $50 billion on them when they are alive and stuff them when they die.
[PD note: That is because many animal related laws are done by HSUS and ARs to (as we have repeatedly stated over and over) — GIVE animals alleged “rights” so as to take animals OUT of the legal category OF “property”…this is in keeping with the 12 Steps of Animal Rights, that no animal should be bought, sold, or used for any purpose, and for the goal of ending the “pet trade” or buying and selling or using of animals for any purpose, including entertainment, food, med testing or otherwise. If you do not know what the 12 Steps of Animal Rights is, see sidebar topics or search box] Also NOTICE that seeing an animal DIE (not just injured) did not gain an award for emotional distress damages. This is normal tort law.
But the bottom line in the court’s ruling: pets are property.