Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What's a pet worth?

There's a couple in Vermont who will go before the state Supreme Court shortly to argue that they should be allowed to sue their veterinarians for compensation for pain and suffering relating to the death of their cats.

You can get the details here by listening to Vermont Edition.

The gist of it is that the couple's cats were being treated for hypertension using a compounded medicine that they allege was improperly made and contained a toxic dose of one of the medications. They further allege that their veterinarians failed to recognize the cats' worsening condition as symptoms of toxicity until it was too late to save them.

The couple is asking the supreme court to make law that would allow them to seek compensation for non-economic damages -- loss of society and emotional suffering -- for the loss of their cats. It should be pointed out that the facts of the case have not yet been settled. It remains for a trial court to determine whether the alleged malpractice has even taken place.

Under Vermont law -- and most other states -- the amount of money a pet owner can collect for malpractice is limited to economic damages. That is, the market value of the pet at the time of its death. Market value is defined, roughly, as the amount that someone would pay for an animal of the same age, breed, and condition as the one that was lost. In this case, the couple has dropped its claim for economic damages and is seeking only non-economic damages.

I hope the Vermont Supreme Court breaks from its tradition and restrains itself from making law. This is the court that has ordered the Legislature to pass laws allowing civil unions and equitable school funding -- both laudable actions in my opinion, but in both cases the court stuck its nose where the judicial proboscis ought not be stuck -- into the Legislature.

If pet owners are able to start collecting for pain and suffering for the loss of pets, veterinary medical malpractice rates will skyrocket, and veterinary medical care -- already a major expense for those of us who farm and keep a large number of working dogs -- will become even less affordable. A few pet owners will get some monetary compensation that will not bring back their beloved Fluffy, and oh, by the way, the trial lawyer will keep at least a third of that award.

Clearly there is a difference between a pet cat or dog and a cow or sheep. Even in the wildest definition of the value of sheep, which was seen in Vermont's BSE-infected flock, the limit was the value of the animal plus the value of the offspring that she would have produced during her lifetime. But most people would not hesitate to spend more than the pet's economic value -- in some cases several multiples of it -- on veterinary care. And more and more, those of us who allow our decisions about veterinary medical expenses enter the equation when we're deciding what course to take with our animals are considered heartless and cold -- even irresponsible.

The proper forum for the discussion about the non-economic value of pets is not the courts. It is the legislature. The right to collect non-economic damages for wrongful human deaths is established by statute, not by judicial decree. There's an old saw that tough cases make bad law, and it's never been more true than this.

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