A woman in New Jersey whose dog was killed in front of her cannot claim damages for “emotional distress,” according to a unanimous ruling from the state Supreme Court.
The decision supports state laws that classify dogs as property, and declared that owners cannot receive damages for seeing the traumatic death of a pet, though they can receive compensation for the replacement of the animal.
“Although we recognize that many people form close bonds with their pets, we conclude that those bonds do not rise to the level of a close familial relationship or intimate, marital-like bond,” Justice Helen E. Hoens wrote in the court’s opinion for the case Joyce McDougall v. Charlot Lamm.
The case regarded plaintiff Joyce McDougall and her Maltese-poodle mix, Angel. McDougall was walking nine-year-old Angel in June 2007 when a larger dog owned by Charlot Lamm ran out, grabbed Angel’s neck and shook her until she died.
In court documents, McDougall described Angel as a “friendly, lively dog” that had been part of her life since 1997 and had kept her company after her children were grown and she was living alone. She demanded compensatory damages and the court agreed, awarding her $5,000 for the replacement cost of the dog. However, McDougall’s claim for damages regarding emotional distress—from witnessing Angel’s traumatic death—was dismissed. The trial court noted that dogs are classified as personal property, and it is not possible to file an emotional distress claim based on property loss.
McDougall appealed the dismissal. However, the state Supreme Court ruled 5-0 against her on July 31, explaining that allowing compensation could prioritize pet relationships over human ones.
“The bond shared between humans and animals is often an emotional and enduring one. Permitting it to support a recovery for emotional distress, however, would require either that we vastly expand the classes of human relationships that would qualify for Portee damages or that we elevate relationships with animals above those we share with other human beings,” Hoens wrote, referring to Portee v. Jaffee, which permits compensation for traumatic loss of certain classes of individuals.
Do you think dogs should be considered personal property? Let us know in the comments.
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Kelly Zhou hails from the Bay Area and is currently a student in Los Angeles. She has written on a variety of topics, predominantly focusing on politics and education. Email Kelly | @kelllyzhou | TakePart.com