Vermont Supreme Court Declines to Allow Non-Economic Recovery for Loss of Pets

catsRobert and Susan Goodby took their two pet cats to the veterinarian for treatment of hypertension. The cats were prescribed 1.25 mg amlodopine.

The Goodbys gave the cats the medication and then obtained a refill. The cats became ill, and the veterinarians attempted treatment though continued to recommend the medication for hypertension. The cats died within days.

The plaintiffs attributed the cause of death to the medication: The concentration of the drug in the refill was much higher than the dosage listed on the label. The plaintiffs also claimed that the veterinarians failed to diagnose that the toxicity of the drug was causing the cats’ illness.

The Goodbys filed suit in 2005 against Vetpharm, Inc. d/b/a BCP Veterinary Pharmacy, Valerie Yankauskas, D.V.M., Paula Yankauskas, D.V.M., Cynthia Pratt, D.V.M., and Charles Powell, D.V.M. 

They made claims for breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of express warranty of merchantability, breach of implied warranty of merchantability for a particular purpose, negligence and wantonness, breach of the Vermont Consumer Fraud Act, and breach of contract. They requested damages including for severe emotional distress, loss of companionship and society.

The case was heard by the Vermont Supreme Court on the issue of whether a pet owner can recover non-economic damages for the loss of a pet.  

Traditionally, courts have only allowed recovery of the market value of the animal or other economic loss when a pet has been injured or died.  A number of cases have been filed over the years to push the envelope, to try to obtain damages for non-economic loss.

In this case the claim for non-economic damages, loss of companionship and society and emotional distress, was initially dismissed by the trial court. The plaintiffs, the Goodbys, ultimately dismissed their claims for economic loss, and appealed that ruling.  

They argued pets are not just property and the law should reflect their special place in people’s lives, the emotional attachment between animals and their human caretakers.

Animal Health Institute Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, and American Kennel Club and the American Veterinary Medical Association and Vermont VMA all filed briefs opposing a change in the law. 

The Vermont Supreme Court issued its opinion, deciding not to allow the Goodbys to pursue claims for non-economic damages. The Court did acknowledge that in Vermont  "pets have special characteristics as personal property" because of their relationship to humans. The Court also noted that the law does not typically allow recovery for emotional distress as the result of the loss of  "many close relatives, such as grandparents or grandchildren, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles, as well as for the loss of nonrelatives like stepchildren, fiances, or other closely held companions".

The Court reasoned:

Plaintiffs fail to demonstrate a compelling reason why, as a matter of public policy, the law should offer broader compensation for the loss of a pet than would be available for the loss of a friend, relative, work animal, heirloom, or memento – all of which can be prized beyond measure, but for which this  state’s law does not recognize recovery for sentimental loss. We are not persuaded that a special exception to recover noneconomic damages for the loss of companion animals occasioned by negligence, damages not entirely distinct from human grief and anguish attending the negligent destruction of other personally important property, both sentient and non-sentient, should be undertaken outside of the legislative arena.

The Court pointed out the plaintiffs could not recover non-economic damages regardless because they were not physically in danger or in the zone of danger and did not demonstrate a reasonable fear of imminent injury.

In the end, the court believed that it is incumbent on the legislature to make this change in the law to allow recovery of non-economic damages for losses to pets.

For more information, read Harming Companion Animals: Liability and Damages.