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Jewish World Review April 10, 2001 / 17 Nissan, 5761

Karen Hucks

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Consumer Reports

Woman sues over death of pet Saint Bernard -- TACOMA, Wash. -- The 220-pound, drooling, sad-eyed Elizabeth had hiked with Michelle Ford, slept with her and helped her cope with a failed 25-year marriage.

"I lost so much," she said recently.

Ford believes she shouldn't have lost anything, and she is suing Tahoma Veterinary Hospital in Spanaway and two veterinarians for negligence.

In addition to seeking unspecified damages for medical costs, lost wages and the expense of taking care of 15 motherless puppies, Ford wants a jury to compensate her for the loss of her relationship with the Saint Bernard.

Legal experts say Washington state courts never have validated the idea. But courts elsewhere in the country are starting to rule that animals are more than property.

Juries routinely award damages to people for the loss of the relationship with their spouses, children and parents, but animals traditionally have been considered merely merchandise.

"Most people don't realize that if somebody negligently injures or kills your pet, all you can get is the replacement value," said Stephan Otto, attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund's office in Oregon.

"So, if you're talking about a 10-year-old dog that you originally got from the pound and has diabetes, what do I owe you if I kill your dog - $10? It really doesn't compensate people."

Maybe it's not surprising that some owners will sue over the loss of their pets when people are dropping dogs off at day-care, sparing no expense to cure ailing pets and giving them Prozac to help with their depression.

Ford is among a small number of Americans who are telling courts that losing a pet is like losing a family member, and should be treated as such.

"The old rules about property are still in place," said University of Washington law professor Louis Wolcher. "But there seems to be a growing awareness in the public - and perhaps in court, but it's too early to tell - that animals are special."

Patrick Palace, Ford's attorney, said previous cases in Washington have set the stage for a court to recognize that people can become attached to their property.

He pointed to two cases:

- The Washington State Supreme Court allowed damages for sentimental reasons in a 1979 case in which the Bartell Drug Co. lost a family's home movies.

- The Court of Appeals in the early 1990s awarded property owners damages for emotional distress after someone cut trees off their property.

"The gist of the Ford case is, I think, common sense," Palace said. "How can you lose a member of the family and not have any money available for it? Wrongdoers should be punished."

Kim Pflueger, the veterinary hospital's attorney and a member of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, said the death of Ford's dog was the unfortunate outcome of an animal weakened by an extraordinary pregnancy, and that the vets did nothing wrong.

Ford contends that by inflicting severe and permanent injury on Elizabeth, the hospital and vets inflicted that same injury on Ford.

She says she suffered severe emotional distress and needed mental health treatment.

People often don't know what they're getting into by claiming emotional pain and suffering from the loss of a pet, said Greg Dennis, a Missouri attorney who is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association.

They have to open up psychiatric and medical records to the court, plus defense attorneys can question their relationships with their deceased pets, he said.

Ford says her lawsuit over losing her dog is not about money.

"I just can't have her death be for nothing," said Ford, who kept two of Elizabeth's puppies. "The vet said, 'You can get another dog.' And I said, 'She wasn't just a dog. She was my friend.'"

Karen Hucks writes for Tacoma News Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS