As we saw in How Much Is Fido Really Worth Part 2, damages – based on the “value” – of your pet dog could cap out at around $200, unless your dog happens to be an expensive pure breed or has extensive training like a seeing eye dog. But could this always be the case? What if someone killed your dog?
As the law stands now in Virginia, the question of whether you can recover damages for a pet initially turns on whether the act was intentional or due to negligence. If someone negligently injures or kills a pet, the owner cannot recover damages for emotional distress. This very scenario came up in 2006 in the Virginia Supreme Court case, Kondaurov v. Kerdasha. Ms. Kerdasha was driving on Route 110 in Arlington County when her jeep was struck in an accident caused by a tour bus being driven by Mr. Kondaurov. Fortunately, Kerdasha did not suffer major injuries, but she was horrified to learn that her dog, Sushi, to whom she was very attached, had been ejected from the jeep during the accident. Sushi ran down Route 110 into a neighboring residential area, where she was finally found, with an injured tail that needed to be partly amputated.
Kerdasha sued Kondaurov for negligence, claiming damages in part based on injuries caused to Sushi. Kondaurov agreed that he was negligent, but fought Kerdasha on damages. A jury awarded Kerdasha $300,000 in damages, and Kondaurov appealed, claiming that Kerdasha was not legally entitled to that amount. When addressing the damages related to Sushi, the Virginia Supreme Court acknowledged Kerdasha’s strong bond to Sushi, and the fact that people often form bonds with their pets akin to a parent-child relationship. But the Court stood by the fact that Virginia – just like the majority of states – still considers pets to be personal property. Because Virginia law has never allowed recovery for emotional distress resulting from negligently inflicting injury to personal property, the Court refused to award damages based on Sushi’s injuries. In support of its position, the Court included a footnote with a string cite of cases from a number of states that likewise refuse to allow damages for emotional distress for injury or death caused by ordinary negligence.
But that same footnote in the Kondaurov opinion left open a window for intentional acts. In that footnote, the Court cited cases from Florida, Idaho, Kentucky and Louisiana allowing recovery of damages for emotional distress for pets injured or killed by willful, intentional or outrageous torts. So if a Virginia court was confronted with a person who intentionally killed a pet, would the court allow recovery of damages? We came close to finding this out in yet another Arlington County case involving Buster, a twelve-pound Chihuahua.
Jeff Nanni and Maurice Smith lived together for years with six well-loved dogs, one of whom was Buster. On one unfortunate day in 2007, Nanni and Smith got into a fight, and Nanni took Buster into his arms. Smith hit Nanni and Buster repeatedly with a wooden board. Nanni rushed Buster to the vet, but Buster died of his injuries on the way to the animal hospital. An autopsy revealed that Buster died of blunt force trauma to the head. Smith was arrested for assault and battery and animal cruelty. He later pled guilty and received ten days in jail and one year of unsupervised probation.
After the criminal case, Nanni sued Smith civilly for severe emotional distress based on that incident when Smith beat him and Buster. Nanni sought at least $15,000 in damages for Buster’s worth to Nanni – not just based on the traditional “replacement value,” but based on Buster’s “unique value” as a companion animal. Unfortunately, the case never progressed to the point of getting an answer about whether Nanni could recover for Smith’s intentional beating and killing of Buster. Before the case could be tried, Smith filed for bankruptcy, and the parties ended up resolving their differences in bankruptcy court.
As attractive as it may seem to create law in Virginia allowing for damages if a person intentionally harms or kills a pet, it may also end up being a case of “be careful what you ask for.” If the law allowed tort and punitive damages for a pet, veterinary malpractice insurance carriers would undoubtedly respond by hiking up premiums, and the hospitals and vets would respond by hiking the cost of services. Would the change in the law be worth that risk?