The $500 Million Dog: Navigating the Legal Space Between Pet and Property
Tue, Mar 7th, 2023 | by Miles Mediation and Arbitration | Article | Social Share
In your most recent Netflix search, you may have paused to preview “Gunther’s Millions,” a mini-series about the $500 million dog. The series tells the story of Gunther, a German Shepard regarded as the world’s richest dog after becoming the heir to a fortune. I watched every minute of the special with a mix of empathy, shock, and curiosity. While the documentary-style series chronicles an outlier story of a dog who now owns Madonna’s Miami mansion, the question still remains: when will the law reflect that pets are more than property?
It’s safe to say that I am a BIG dog person, and I’m not alone. According to the American Veterinary Medication Association, more than 76 million Americans own at least one dog. Or maybe I should say love at least one dog, because I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have an emotional connection to their dog. My dogs are absolutely family.
What I find interesting as a mediator, attorney, and a dog lover is that we have these incredible emotional connections to intelligent animals. They serve us in combat and our homes, and yet we still live in a time when the law defines them as property. Animals are treated as tools, not living beings, by the law, which means people can’t recover damages for pain and suffering when their animals are negligently harmed by someone else. It also means that the way the law calculates their value is likely to be far less than what it should be. As we evolve and understand the role and capacity of animals in our lives, the law should also evolve to protect them and accurately define their worth in our society.
My Fur Babies
Meet my boys, Bleu Bear Brogdon (Bleu) and Suga Bear Brogdon (Suge). Bleu is a 100-pound Pitbull Terrier and Suge is a 120-pound American Staffordshire Terrier. Size aside, they’re my babies. One day I accidentally left our gate open, and they both got out. My wife texted me to tell me what had happened. I was trying to maintain my composure during a mediation as my wife combed the neighborhood in search of our boys.
I was panicked. My mind was full of what-ifs. What if they get hit by a car? What if they get hurt or killed? What if someone picks them up? Luckily, I live in an incredible neighborhood. A dog walker convinced them to get in her car, took them to the local vet, and searched Facebook until they found us. We got both dogs home safely, but that incident started me thinking.
If one of my dogs had been hit by a car, and it was the driver’s fault (I know they were at-large, but stick with me!), I would have little recourse. Under the law as it stands, I could recover the cost of the vet bills if Bleu or Suge had been hurt or killed, but not the pain and suffering I endure, or my dog endures, as a result of being hurt by a tortious or negligent act by another. The reason is that so far, the courts have not allowed dogs to have legal standing because they are considered property.
Animals are Property Under the Law
The concept of “animals are property” came from a time when horses were used to pull carriages and animals were raised primarily as sources of food or to provide labor. We didn’t know, or even care, what animals might understand or what kinds of pain or suffering they might endure due to our treatment. Animals were disposable. Interchangeable. They had no rights.
In recent years, particularly in the last couple of decades, our empathy and attachment have grown. We have begun to move the needle and to appreciate how much they contribute to our well-being and understand how sentient they are.
The idea of damages is to compensate the injured party from the wrongful acts of another. In Georgia, the goal is to make that injured person “whole” again. Yet as far as I know, there is no case that has allowed animals to recover damages for pain and suffering, because animals are not “persons” in the eyes of the law. While there are laws designed to prevent animals from being hurt and neglected, an animal does not have the rights in which an owner can pursue, or standing, to file a legal claim.
In Monyak, et al. v. Barking House Village, LLC, a prominent Georgia attorney and his wife filed a complaint on behalf of their dog after it suffered acute renal failure after a stay with the defendants. The Georgia Supreme Court stated, “the proper measure of damages recoverable by the Monyaks for the negligent injury and death of their dog includes both the dog’s fair market value plus interest and any reasonable medical costs and other expenses they incurred in treating the animal for its injuries.” The court did allow the Monyaks to present evidence of the qualitative and quantitative attributes to describe the dog’s value. However, the court did not allow the introduction of evidence related to sentimental value or recover for sentimental/intrinsic value.
As we learn more about animals and what their capacity is, it does beg a question as to what rights an animal may have. Dogs can communicate that they are in pain. Does that give the right to recover damages for pain and suffering? Is there a certain level of intellect, capacity, or vulnerability that gives an owner the right to sue? What is the real line separating people from animals that gives us certain rights? What does it mean that we protect animals criminally but not civilly? Why can’t a dog have legal standing?
I recognize this may be a Pandora’s box. Once you open it, where do you stop? If you can sue on behalf of a dog, can you sue on behalf of a cat? A bird? A fish? If you give an animal standing — such as by giving a dog the right to sue — you’re creating an entire new category of litigation.
Animals Can Be More Than Property
In 2016, the Oregon Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that found that “animals are sentient beings unlike other property” and noted that while they are not persons, they do receive some statutory protections (such as laws preventing animal neglect or abuse). This case seems like a step toward recognizing that animals, or at least pets, are more than property.
Calculating damages when an animal has been hurt or killed due to the neglect or tortious conduct of another will be challenging. If you are talking about an animal that is raised for a commercial reason, like a cow or a chicken, it’s relatively easy to calculate the value of that animal. But how do you calculate the value of a pet? How do the courts determine what a pet is worth?
In the past, pets, also known as companion animals, have been assessed at “market value.” For a purebred dog or cat, this might be hundreds, even thousands of dollars, but what about mixed-breed dogs, or shelter rescues? Courts have been unwilling to find that pets have intrinsic value so far.
But isn’t a dog that sleeps cuddled with you every night and welcomes you home with a wagging tail every day, worth more than the $150 you paid at the animal shelter? So far courts have not allowed the sentimental value of a pet to be included in damages claims, but that may change as the law evolves.
Because different types of dogs may have different values, it may be a very complicated process to determine an animal’s pain and suffering or an owner’s pain and suffering due to the loss of that beloved pet. I’d propose the court start with statutory value ranges for a specialized judge and/or jury based on three categories of animals which are not mutually exclusive:
- Some help their owners generate revenue;
- Some provide a service that doesn’t produce money but is necessary for the owner’s basic lifestyle; and
- Some are “merely” pets.
In the first category, if you have a dog that generates revenue for its owner (such as with a show dog that is bred or a hunting dog that helps the owner put food on the table), the owner should be able to recover future lost income recoverable on their death, as well as the pain and suffering of the owner at the loss or injury of the dog.
Dogs that provide services including lifestyle support (visually impaired guide dogs, emotional support dogs, dogs that are trained to alert their owner of health conditions) also have significant value to their owners that should be considered when determining damages, in addition to the pain and suffering of the owner due to the loss or injury of that dog.
And even with the third category, “mere” pets, the loss of a pet’s life, or companionship, may affect the pet owner’s mental and even physical health. Shouldn’t an owner be able to recover for the pain, suffering, and emotional distress of losing or injuring a beloved fur baby because of the wrongful acts of another?
What dogs do for us, and the role they play in our lives, challenges our basis for recovery. Compelling arguments can be made that dogs, and possibly other sentient animals, should be given standing by the courts, and that their value should include factors other than the mere cost of the animal. I hope that in my lifetime we can see progress but if it is beyond my lifetime, you can expect that my dogs, like Gunther, will be named as beneficiaries in my will.
ABOUT GINO BROGDON, JR.
Gino Brogdon, Jr. has handled hundreds of mediations at Miles Mediation and is a member of the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals. He is skilled in engaging clients that are new to the mediation process and parties especially resistant to resolution. Whether in-person or virtually, Gino is adept in guiding the resolution process no matter the location of the parties. He specializes in personal injury, including complex automobile and trucking cases, premises liability, medical malpractice, wrongful death, nursing home, and business disputes.