Judge holding gavel

Every Sunday morning I run a 10K. And now that my Belgian Malinois pup, Violet, is 12 months old, her bone structure is sufficiently developed that this kind of long-ish run is both safe and salubrious for both of us. Well, usually, anyhow. Here’s what happened:

Miami drivers are notoriously in the habit of killing pedestrians. (South Florida ranks second in the nation in pedestrian deaths from vehicular “accidents.”) Which is why Violet and I run against traffic. At least we can see them coming, you know?

So there we were, running on a sidewalk next to a busy, two-lane, tree-lined street when a driver turning onto the busy road not only failed to stop at the sign, but also cut into the sidewalk to expedite her turn into traffic. We were inches from her bumper. Absorbed as she was on her cell phone, she never even looked in our direction.

Now, Violet is an agile pup, and I’m a woman in her 40s. You do the math and tell me whose reflexes kicked in first. To avoid the car (on her immediate left), Violet ran into me (running on her right), sending both of us tumbling onto the rocky swale and rolling over each other. The car never stopped.

Other drivers saw the whole thing and pulled over to ask if we needed help. But apart from getting bruised up from the rocks, twisting an ankle, wrenching my wrist (swollen only for a couple of days), and cracking the screen on my iPhone ($129, thank you very much!), we were fine.

Yep, we were lucky. Violet might’ve even saved me from a direct hit, sluggish reflexes and all that. But who knows what might’ve happened had the vehicle hit us. Violet would’ve almost certainly taken the brunt of it.

What's a Pet Worth?

All of which got me to thinking (yet again!) about my legal rights in the event Violet had been injured in the accident. Assuming the driver had stopped, her insurance would’ve been liable for my injuries. But Violet’s?

Now there’s the rub. Ironically, the driver would’ve had to pay for my iPhone and our hospital bills (Violet’s, too), but had Violet been killed, I would’ve had limited legal restitution.

Which brings me straight to the point of this post: How much are our pets really worth? More specifically, how much are they worth within the context of our culture and our current legal system? 

After all, as many animal welfare advocates argue, pets shouldn’t be treated like iPhones. Given our emotional investment in their well-being, they’re neither disposable nor replaceable. That is to say, they’re increasingly regarded as having what our laws call “intrinsic value.”

Changing Legal Viewpoints

Here’s some background on this issue: Pets have historically been regarded as “simple property” in the eyes of the U.S. legal system. Though they’re afforded some extra rights (you can neither abuse them nor neglect them, for example), their monetary value has until recently been limited to their fair market value.

For example: In terms of his fair market value, your old, arthritic rescue dog isn’t likely to be worth much. In fact, he’s probably more of a liability than anything else given what it might cost for someone to take him on for the rest of his life. In other words, your past-his-prime pet has historically been considered less than worthless.

But the laws are changing.

Consider this real-world example sourced from my neck of the woods: In 2009, a judge in South Florida awarded an owner $30,000 for the loss of her Rottweiler after a boarding kennel failed to seek veterinary care for a respiratory condition that led to his death. Of that amount, $10,000 was awarded for the vet care his owners ultimately sought (upon their return from their vacation). And $20,000 was awarded for his “intrinsic” value. (There have been similar judgments in other parts of the country.)

To be sure, to most of us who love pets enough to read and write about them, it’s a positive sign of the times. But it’s not just us.

Can We Put a Value on Companionship?

Indeed, among more enlightened legal scholars, animal attorneys and plenty of veterinarians out there, the very idea of your pet’s negative monetary value is ridiculous. After all, you’ve spent thousands on him, year after year, caring for him lovingly as if he were a member of your family. The negligence of a professional or the cruelty of a neighbor shouldn’t be discounted in monetary terms just because, in legal estimation, he belongs in your debit column.

After all, this animal has real “intrinsic” value to you in ways your car or your toaster oven cannot. All your expenses and all that sweat equity spent training, exercising, feeding, learning and involving yourself fully in his daily care clearly demonstrate that this pet is worth more to you than the word “pet” might imply. He is a companion in every sense of the word (and often more). Your friends, your neighbors, your veterinarian, your groomer and your pet sitter can all attest to that.

So when your pet is “lost” because of the wrongful actions of others, as Violet might’ve been, this intrinsic value legally translates into “loss of companionship.” And I believe you should have the right to seek compensation for this.

In fact, here’s my overriding point: If Violet had been killed, it wouldn’t have been enough to receive simple justice on behalf of my “pet” to the tune of what someone’s insurance company calculates I deserve. Not for me, anyway.

No, I hold that the wrongdoers (like this driver, if she’d hit us) should be punished, too. And the only way that can happen in the context of our current legal system is if they can be made liable for what the legal system calls “punitive” or “non-economic” damages.

Though “non-economic” damages is the modern terminology applied to pets in this context, both terms denote a financial award, one that’s traditionally served as a means of punishment and deterrent to those who would wantonly disregard an important cultural value (for example, the critical importance of a pet’s life to certain individuals).

Some Gray Areas

Similarly — and this is critical (to me, at least) — an owner who has treated his pet like a “thing” all his life (i.e., a backyard existence, minimal vet care, no training, etc.) does not deserve to reap benefits similar to those of owners whose pets are truly treated as members of the family and play a vital role as companions.

Though you might argue that every animal deserves to be defended on his or her own intrinsic merits, the reality is that, according to our current legal system, humans are the initiators, sufferers and, consequently, the beneficiaries of monetary awards. That’s why a pet who’s not lucky enough to have been cared for by a human can’t, by himself, claim a loss for his intrinsic value. (Not yet, anyway. But that may be changing, too!)

But all that’s just the opinion of one angry, banged-up pet “owner” who can’t stomach the thought of a driver getting away with murder just because my Violet is “just a dog.”

Nonetheless, there are plenty of critical-thinking, well-meaning, animal-loving people who disagree. Many veterinarians, for example, sympathize with the loss of any pet but worry that raising the legal value of pets would result in higher veterinary liability insurance, which in turn could raise the cost of veterinary care and ultimately put pet ownership out of the financial reach of many people.

All of which makes it a heady subject for the courts, attorneys, veterinarians and pet owners to ponder. What's your opinion?

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