Sunday, June 17, 2012

Assessing damages for injury to a pet

Last Thursday, I was sitting as an arbitrator in the Small Claims Court in Brooklyn.
Ms. Petrova had sued Mr. Domenico because his dog (she said pit bull; he said terrier) had savaged her schnauzer, which she claimed was a service dog (she had no visible infirmities but said she had MS).  There didn't seem to be any argument about liability. The photographs showing the injuries were gruesome. The dog was not leashed or tied, and somehow got out of his yard. Mr. Domenico did not dispute that the dog had previously injured another dog, and been the subject of a Daily News article.
On the day of the incident, Mr. Domenico went to the animal hospital and paid $3400 as a deposit against the final bill. He was advised that the total bill would be within a range from $6300-$8400. The final bill was $6300, even though the separately enumerated charges exceeded that sum, but Mr. Domenico had stopped returning Ms. Petrova's phone calls by that point, so Ms. Petrova had to use her credit card to pay the balance of $2900.
Ms. Petrova sued Mr. Domenico for about $5000, the limit in the Small Claims Court. She showed me the receipt for $2900, and said she had extra expenses for travelling to the animal hospital, medication for the dog, and other things. She had no receipts for those expenses.
For his part, Mr. Domenico had not seen the final bill, had been told the dog had tumors, and was not going to pay for any care the dog would have needed regardless of the mauling.
Without a lot of time to spend on the case, I awarded Ms. Petrova $2900.
Thinking about it afterwards, it occurred to me that plaintiff could have argued that she was in the zone of danger and was entitled to compensation for her emotional distress. She might even have argued that the dog was entitled to compensation. It also occurred to me that defendant could have argued that it was wasteful to spend $6300 for surgery on an old dog, when plaintiff could have purchased a new dog for less money.
On reflection, it seems that we are probably unwilling to accept either argument. We treat dogs as more than property, so the defense argument that works for old cars doesn't work for dogs. However, we treat dogs as less than people, so we don't award damages for their pain and suffering. We might award damages for emotional distress, but I need to research that...