Vermont court says no to emotional compensation for pet loss

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The Vermont Supreme Court has upheld a lower court's decision dismissing a lawsuit claiming the right to compensation for the emotional pain and lost companionship of two pet cats that died as a result of alleged veterinary negligence.

The ruling, issued May 8, was welcomed by those who see these types of claims as having the potential to dramatically reshape animal jurisprudence and negatively impact the practice of veterinary medicine.

"We are pleased that the Vermont Supreme Court recognized the pitfalls of noneconomic damages in veterinary cases and declined to depart from sound, established legal precedent," said Adrian Hochstadt, JD, assistant director for state legislative and regulatory affairs in the AVMA Communications Division.

Proponents of noneconomic claims argue that courts should grant these awards as recognition of the special relationship between people and pets. Organizations such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs, say current animal law is antiquated because it treats pets as property and fails to account for the animal's emotional value to its owner.

The lawsuit was brought by Robert and Susan Goodby, who were having their two cats treated for hypertension in December 2002 (see JAVMA, May 15, 2008). Amlodopine chew tabs prescribed by the veterinarians were allegedly dispensed by a veterinary pharmacy at a much higher concentration than the labeled dosage, which the Goodbys say caused the cats' deaths.

The Goodbys sued the veterinarians and the compounding pharmacy in 2005, claiming breach of contract and negligence in addition to loss of companionship and society, severe emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The trial court dismissed the loss of companionship and emotional distress claims. The Goodbys appealed but eventually dropped all economic claims from their suit. They then requested that the Vermont Supreme Court decide whether they could recover noneconomic damages for the wrongful deaths of their pets.

In its decision against the Goodbys, the state Supreme Court wrote that the plaintiffs were asking for a judicial expansion for pet loss when the law does not allow noneconomic compensation for the loss of valued human relationships, such as with grandparents, stepchildren, and aunts and uncles.

"Plaintiffs fail to demonstrate a compelling reason why, as a matter of public policy, the law should offer broader compensation for the loss of a pet than would be for the loss of a friend, relative, work animal, heirloom, or memento—all of which can be prized beyond measure, but for which this state's law does not recognize recovery for sentimental loss," the court wrote.

The court added that it was reluctant to create rights where the state legislature had not.

The AVMA position opposing noneconomic damages—"Compensatory values for animals beyond their property value"—is posted on the Association's Web site.