State Advocacy Issue

 Pros and Cons of allowing recovery of non-economic damages (as opposed to punitive damages) for injuries to or loss of animals

Approved by the Executive Board, June 2005

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) believes the interests of animals and their owners are best protected by the current legal framework that allows for potential recovery of economic damages in negligence litigation involving animals. Any extension of available remedies beyond economic damages would be inappropriate and ultimately harm animals. The AVMA opposes recovery of non-economic damages.

The AVMA recognizes that American society has evolved from an agrarian one in which the animals most of us owned primarily had economic utility, to an urban one in which most of us derive some emotional value from our animals. The veterinary profession and others who care for animals have long acknowledged the importance of the human-animal bond and emotional attachments between pets and their owners. However, the AVMA believes the unintended consequences of any extension of potentially available damages beyond economic damages outweigh any potential benefits.

The AVMA recognizes and supports the legal concept of animals as property. Animals enjoy various protections and benefits under state and federal laws (e.g., anti-cruelty laws, animal welfare laws, pet trusts, animal control laws, and mandatory vaccination laws) that are not available to other kinds of property.

In the text that follows, the AVMA delineates reasons for not allowing recovery of non-economic damages, as well as the purported benefits of doing so. Comments on purported benefits are also provided.

Recovery of non-economic damages for injuries to or loss of animals should not be allowed because:

  • Increased costs associated with recovery will reduce owners' interest in seeking animal-related services —Expansion of available remedies in litigation involving animals beyond economic damages will increase costs for delivery of veterinary care. These increased costs will be passed on to the consumer. Cost increases, however, will not be limited to those associated with veterinary care. Consumer costs for any animal-related service or product will increase, including those for boarding, grooming, training, medication, food and transportation. Increased costs are likely to reduce interest in seeking animal-related services and products, harming animals in the process.
  • An increase in available damages will drive an increase in claims and litigation and create associated additional costs for defense, settlement, and administration—These costs will be passed on to the public. The experience of the human medical community indicates that non-economic damage awards drive increases in litigation, verdicts and premiums.
  • The value of human-animal relationships will be placed above that of most human-human relationships—Allowing recovery of non-economic damages in litigation involving animals will place the value of human-animal relationships above that of most human-human relationships. Recovery would be allowed for injury to or loss of an animal, whereas recovery would be denied for injury to or loss of a grandparent, cousin or best friend. Indeed, awards are often difficult to obtain for injury to one's spouse or child.
  • Non-economic damages are not available for property—Animals are property. Non-economic damages are not available for the loss of property. Expanding the law to allow recovery of non-economic damages for animals would erode their current classification as property and could lead to many unintended consequences.
  • Administrative obstacles are created—If non-economic damages were available for injury to or loss of animals, administration and oversight of claims would be difficult and burdensome. Evaluation of such claims and qualifying and quantifying potential exposure would be extremely difficult and would have to be done on a costly case-by-case basis. In rejecting non-economic damages in the context of animals, the courts have noted, among other things, difficulties in authenticating the degree of the emotional bond between animals and owners and in determining the number and identities of the owner(s).
  • Experience in human medicine with large non-economic damage awards has discouraged the practice of medicine—The consequences of large non-economic damage awards and increased litigation have been dramatic for the human medical profession. In some geographic areas physicians have simply quit practicing, making it difficult for patients in those areas to obtain needed care. Across the country, other physicians have chosen to leave practice due to the expense and/or disruption in their practices caused by litigation. This has occurred despite attempts to build protections into the law (e.g., statutes of limitations, expert affidavits, and damage caps); these protections are not typically available to veterinarians. The AVMA believes the veterinary profession will be faced with similar issues should recovery of non-economic damages be allowed for animals.
  • Adverse impacts on society—Awarding non-economic damages will impact the public as well as animal care providers. For example, an individual who hits a dog with their car may be liable for large non-economic damages. Society will bear the burden of increased costs resulting from recognition of additional remedies. Included are higher insurance costs (e.g., automobile, homeowners', general liability) and higher operating costs for animal control agencies and animal shelters.

Proponents support allowing recovery of non-economic damages for injuries to or loss of animals because they believe such awards will:

  • Improve care for animals by deterring provision of substandard care—The AVMA does not believe allowing non-economic damage awards will improve the quality of animal care. Evidence from peer-review of human medical practice demonstrates the absence of a correlation between legal liability and substandard care. In other words, physicians whose peers believed they were practicing appropriately were often found liable to a plaintiff for damages in litigation, whereas physicians believed by their peers to be practicing below the standard of care were often not sued. This leads us to question the premise that liability awards have a deterrent effect.
  • Bring damage awards in line with the value society has placed on relationships between people and their pets—The AVMA believes the interests of animals and their owners are best protected by the current legal framework that allows for potential recovery of economic damages in negligence litigation involving animals. Allowing recovery of non-economic damages by some animal owners would perversely have the ultimate effect of harming animals in the process of enriching some people's pocketbooks.

Source:   AVMA Task Force on Legal Status of Animals
Contact:  Dr. Gail Golab, Director, Animal Welfare, AVMA, 847-285-6618.