Making sure that health care for companion animals remains affordable and available is a primary concern across the animal health community. Recent court cases highlight the danger of allowing pet litigation to mirror the costly and destructive outcomes that are often seen in human medical malpractice lawsuits. Large awards for subjective damages, such as emotional distress, not only result in higher costs for pet health care, but they also blur the line of legal distinction between pets and people.
AHI continuously monitors judicial decisions involving animal health issues in order to watch for developing legal trends, and to effectively advocate for its members by supporting regulations that are in the best interest of animals and their owners.
Efforts are underway to change the legal status of pets. A number of organizations have proposed replacing the term “owner” with “guardian” to better represent the relationship between pets and people. While this may seem like a simple case of semantics, in reality it represents a major change in the legal standing of animals.
Pets and other domesticated animals have long benefited from a very special legal status in this country. While pets are currently considered the property of their owners, they are not in the same legal class as inanimate objects. Instead, pets are protected by an intricate web of federal and state laws governing their care and treatment. These laws are designed to protect animals from irresponsible neglect and other forms of abuse.
In contrast, guardianship is a complex fiduciary relationship that severs the direct and unbreakable link between pet and owner. While “owners” of animals have sole rights and responsibilities over the care of those animals, “guardians” must share those rights with the courts – and potentially with third parties – as well. In a guardianship, anyone with a self-proclaimed interest could use the courts to force an animal “caretaker” to make decisions that may not be in the best interest of that animal.
Changes in ownership laws, like the ones being considered in multiple states and municipalities, would not only create layers of confusion about the relationship between animals and their owners; they would limit – and potentially even eliminate – the ability of pet owners to freely choose the most appropriate treatments for their pets
Litigation and Emotional Distress Cases
Another challenge involves litigation that seeks non-economic damages such as “emotional distress” in cases involving pets. The current framework for pet litigation allows for stable and affordable veterinary care for animals, fair compensation for pet owners and adequate punishment of people who harm animals. But allowing frivolous lawsuits and awarding large judgments for emotional distress would drive up the cost of care and place millions of pets at risk.
However, some animal activists – along with some plaintiffs’ attorneys – are supporting legislation proposed in a number of states to allow pet owners to recover losses for emotional distress and loss of companionship in cases involving their pets. Regrettably, the prospect of such non-economic damages would increase the perceived financial incentive to litigate, thereby stimulating a sharp increase in the volume of pet litigation – a phenomenon that has plagued the health care industry for years.
Additionally, allowing pet owners to recover non-economic damages through court cases would:
- Create economic and legal liability for pet owners that could make the cost and risk of owning a pet prohibitive for some households;
- Increase the cost of pet health care; and
- Significantly limit access to affordable pet health care.
Our View on Legislative and Judicial Decisions
AHI values the health and well being of animals and believes that their value as companions is far greater than that of ordinary material possessions. We do not believe, however, that opening the door for monetary judgments in excess of what can be awarded for human injury and death is appropriate, or in the best interest of animals.
Judicial: AHI has worked with pet owners in the courtroom and in state legislatures to hold the line against awarding non-economic damages in cases involving animals. In each case that has been brought seeking these damages, judges have decided against allowing non-economic damages. Additionally, efforts have been made to develop legal literature highlighting these courtroom successes.
Legislative: On the legislative front, a coalition of pet owners supported by AHI has succeeded in blocking legislation allowing non-economic damages in Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York and Washington. Our continued success in opposing similar changes to the law is crucial to keeping pet ownership and health care affordable.
For more information on pet litigation, please view the documents below or visit the Research and Resources page