We didn’t get a whole lot of education on the topic of the law while we were in school. Too much other stuff to cram into four short years to spend much time on something that changes with some regularity. But at the time, the general consensus was this: from a legal standpoint, pets are property, and as such, your liability in terms of the law is limited to the replacement value of the pet.
That has changed with some rapidity.
A Texas court is just one of the most recent cases in which a judge has ruled that owners can recover damages for “sentimental or intrinsic value” after the loss of a pet. In New York, a woman is suing a pet shop for the pet’s medical ailments, claiming damages for not herself, but the pet’s own pain and suffering- in essence challenging the legal upholding that pets are merely property. These are just the latest cases, but they are not the only ones.
This sort of legal wrangling makes me shudder as a vet, and I’ll tell you why. Well, to quote the great Mandy Patinkin from The Princess Bride, there is too much. Let me sum up.
From an ethical standpoint, we already know that pets are more than just pieces of wood we can do with as we will, which is why there are animal welfare statutes and prosecutions for neglect. But from a legal standpoint, the “property” definition has kept the damages in the courtroom to manageable amounts. It’s the reason an anesthesiologist may pay up to half their salary in malpractice premiums, but vets- unless you work with high value pets like racehorses- have pretty small premiums.
If that changes, and despite the efforts of organized veterinary medicine to the contrary I think it will, be ready. Because if veterinarians have to start facing skyrocketing pain and suffering damage claims not only for the legitimate cases of wrongdoing, but the many more numerous specious claims that will arise, the ones who are going to suffer the most are pets. If you think the cost of veterinary medicine is high now, wait until that happens.
I love this guy. But I’ve never viewed him the same way I do a person.
It’s a conundrum. On the one end of the spectrum we have a lot of people who are entirely oblivious to the pain they cause these living beings, through neglect and ambivalence and things like fighting rings and puppy mills. As a society we still have a ways to go on that account, though I will say having been to multiple third world countries we are still light years ahead of the game.
On the other hand, there are those who want pets to have the same legal and ethical footing as we give ourselves. There has to be some sort of happy medium here. But I don’t feel- and obviously I have a biased view on the topic- that this legal sort of challenge is the best venue in which to force those changes. At best, it will make some lawyers rich, though I still think the root causes of our attitudes towards animals are best dealt with elsewhere.
Education. Teach children from a young age about how to treat other living beings with respect. Teach owners about the proper way to research, obtain, and care for an animal. If the woman in the New York case had spent 10 seconds researching how to obtain a pet, she wouldn’t have been at a pet store in the first place. So who exactly is culpable here?
I once had a veterinarian more experienced and wiser than me pat me on the back during a really horrible experience involving a lawyer and say, “That’s just part of being a vet in this day and age.” That experience changed me, and not for the better. And I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.
This is a tip of the iceberg sort of thing, but what do you think? Will changing the legal standpoint of the animals really help them in the long run? Are you ok with paying double in order to reserve the right to sue for pain and suffering? Or are we barking up the wrong tree?