High Court to Consider Whether Emotional Damages Can be Recovered in Death of a Pet

For the dog lovers among us, our pets are family. We pamper them, we love them and, when they die, we grieve them. But with dog ownership comes responsibility and there are laws to assure those responsibilities are met.

Most states, including New Jersey, hold dog owners responsible for damages caused if their dogs bite a person. The N.J.S.A. 4:19-16 statute addresses no other injury except dog bites and holds true even if the dog is in the possession of someone other than its owner – a dog walker, for example – when the attack occurs. There are exceptions to this law including instances when the victim is on the dog owner’s property illegally. (1)

What happens, though, when one dog attacks and kills another? That’s a question the New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to consider. (2)

The case involves Joyce McDougall who, in July 2007, witnessed a fatal attack on her dog, Angel, a Maltese and poodle mix, while visiting the state from her hometown in Virginia. Ms. McDougall was walking Angel when another larger dog came out of a nearby house and attacked her dog. Ms. McDougall watched as Angel was mauled, shaken and left dead on the sidewalk. (3)

A Morristown Superior Court Judge awarded Ms. McDougall $5,000 in economic damages, but ruled she was not entitled to recover any emotional damages even though she had witnessed the vicious attack. That decision was later upheld by a New Jersey Appellate Court. (3)

The law considers dogs, and other pets, property — not family and, as such, owners are not entitled to recover emotional damages upon their loss. The law currently only allows for the recovery of emotional damages under certain circumstances when a person witnesses the tragic death of a human family member – not an animal. (2)

While a date for the Supreme Court’s hearing of this case has not yet been announced, the Court’s decision could bring changes to animal law as we now know it.

(1) http://www.animallaw.info/statutes/stusnjst4_19_16.htm
(2) http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/08/nj_supreme_court_to_consider_l.html

(3) http://www.dailyrecord.com/article/20110816/NJNEWS/308160020/State-Supreme-Court-hear-Morris-Plains-case-decide-owner-killed-dog-can-claim-emotional-distress