I’ve touched on the subject of how much a companion animal is worth in the early days of this blog. Basically, Virginia looks at companion animals as “personal property” and will generally consider the pet’s “replacement value” as the measure of what the animal is worth. Recent events made this a topic worth coming back to.
My last post talked about Indiana’s failed attempt to use tax evasion laws against owners of a puppy mill. One of the greatest weaknesses with the Indiana officials’ plan was that they sold the 240 seized dogs to the Humane Society of the United States for a mere $300. In a sting operation, Department of State Revenue officials had purchased two dogs from the puppy mill at $225 a piece, and the Department estimated the value of each dog at $300 when calculating what the owners owed in taxes, penalties and interest. Based on the tax court’s ruling, I doubt that a more realistic price tag would have helped the officials’ case, but at least it would have helped negate the argument that the Department wasn’t really looking for tax revenue to fill its coffers.
On a much more optimistic note, a federal jury recently awarded $330,000 in damages to Thomas Russell’s family, whose nine-year-old black lab named Lady was killed by police officers executing a search warrant. Two officers entered his house to search based on a search warrant in a drug investigation. Russell offered to lock Lady in a room, but the police refused. They entered the house with guns drawn and shot Lady as she rounded the corner wagging her tail. The police claimed they shot Lady in self-defense. The police found no drugs or other evidence during the search. The family sued the officers and the City of Chicago, alleging excessive force, false arrest, and infliction of emotional distress. On top of the $330,000 in damages, the jury awarded $2,000 in punitive damages against the officer who shot Lady and $1,000 in punitive damages against that officer’s supervisor.
As I’ve mentioned before, Virginia does not allow emotional distress damages for injury or harm to pets in negligence cases. But the word is still out on whether a Virginia plaintiff could recover damages for emotional distress to companion animals injured or killed by willful, intentional or outrageous torts. With the Russell case, Illinois joins the list of states – which include Florida, Idaho, Kentucky and Louisiana – that will allow damages in those situations. With each state that rules in favor of plaintiffs in these cases, Virginia and other states may just be getting that much closer to valuing companion animals beyond their mere “replacement value.”