AVMA weighs in on emotional damages case

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The AVMA is one of several nonprofit associations asking an Arizona appellate court to deny a plaintiff's request for emotional distress damages stemming from the death of a pet macaw.

This is the third malpractice lawsuit in the past two years the AVMA has weighed in on where a plaintiff has sought compensation for emotional pain and suffering brought about by the death of a companion animal.

The AVMA opposes such rewards partly on the grounds that, were they allowed, pet owners and animals would be harmed by the rising cost of veterinary care. Faced with higher liability insurance premiums, veterinarians would likely have to raise prices, which some clients wouldn't be able to afford. As a consequence, some pets would not receive treatment.

Claims for noneconomic damages resulting from the wrongful death or injury of a pet are rare, and most courts have denied plaintiffs' attempts to be compensated for emotional distress in these instances (see JAVMA, June 15, 2009).

The Arizona suit was brought in 2007 by David Kaufman against Dr. William Langhofer, First Regional Animal Hospital, and Scottsdale Veterinary Clinic. Kaufman alleged professional negligence, veterinary malpractice, wrongful death, false advertising, and misrepresentation in the death of his macaw, Salty, in 2005.

In his complaint, Kaufman requested damages for emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of companionship, loss of society, and the loss of Salty and compensation for the bird's fair market value.

Defendants asked that Kaufman's request for special damages be excluded, and the Maricopa County, Ariz., Superior Court agreed, saying Kaufman was entitled only to recover Salty's fair market value and amounts spent on veterinary bills.

After a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Kaufman in the amount of zero dollars, found Kaufman to be 70 percent at fault, and also found in favor of First Regional Animal Hospital.

Kaufman has filed an appeal with the Arizona Court of Appeals, saying the trial court incorrectly applied state law to limit damages to Salty's market value and should have extended the law to allow for recovery of damages associated with emotional losses.

The AVMA, along with the Arizona VMA, Animal Health Institute, American Animal Hospital Association, American Kennel Club, American Pet Products Association, Cat Fanciers' Association, and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, filed a brief this September asking the appeals court to deny Kaufman's claim.

In the brief, they state that Arizona law limits circumstances under which a person may seek emotional loss damages when sustaining no physical injury and should not be expanded to include pets. Moreover, state law allows pet owners to receive fair and substantial awards for pet injuries.

The court had not yet determined whether it would hear the appeal as of press time in October.

The AVMA position "Compensatory values for animals beyond their property value" is posted on the AVMA Web site (www.avma.org). More information on the consequences of expanding damages in animal litigation is available here.