Written by Christopher Bergin, Esq.
Edited by Brian Cafritz, Esq.
We love our pets. In some households, a companion animal might not be considered a “pet” at all, but rather a fully-fledged member of the family. In fact, we love our pets so much that even the Supreme Court of Virginia has recognized the deep and genuine bond that forms between a pet and owner:
“An emotional bond may exist with a pet resembling that between parent and child, and the loss of such an animal may give rise to grief approaching that attending the loss of a family member.” Kondaurov v. Kerdasha, 271 Va. 646, 657, 629 S.E.2d 181, 186 (2006).
For retailers who provide pet-grooming services and for dog-friendly restaurants, this raises an important question: if a pet is harmed by a defendant’s negligence, can the pet’s owner recover damages for emotional distress or loss of companionship?
Generally speaking, the answer is no. The vast majority of states hold that pets—however beloved—are personal property. As such, most courts categorically refuse to allow damages for emotional distress, which arise from the negligent injury to or death of a pet. Kondaurov, 271 Va. at 657, 629 S.E.2d at 182 n. 4. A plaintiff’s recovery in these cases will be limited to the fair market value of the animal.
At least two states (Illinois and Tennessee) have found the majority rule too harsh. These states have enacted legislation which specifically allows pet owners to recover emotional and non-economic damages for the loss of a pet under certain prescribed conditions. Nevertheless, even these sympathetic statutes are narrowly limited in their application. For example, under the Illinois statute, a plaintiff can recover emotional distress damages only when her pet was injured subject to an act of aggravated cruelty or bad faith—the statute does not allow emotional distress damages in cases of ordinary negligence. 510 Ill Compl Stat. 70/16.3. The Tennessee statute allows plaintiffs to recover noneconomic damages for the negligent death of a pet, but caps these damages at $5,000. Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-17-403.
A very slim minority of states and a few rogue courts have allowed plaintiffs to recover emotional distress damages for injury to or death of a pet. But these cases are rare. See e.g., Corso v Crawford Dog & Cat Hosp., 415 N.Y.S.2d 182, 182–83 (Civ. Ct. 1979) (awarding emotional distress damages to a woman who organized an “elaborate funeral” for her dog, and thereafter opened the casket and found a dead cat inside); Cambell v. Animal Quarantine Station, 632 P.2d 1066, 1068 (Haw. 1981) (explaining that, under Hawaii state law, a plaintiff may recover emotional distress damages for the negligent destruction of property, and, therefore, for the negligent death of her pet).
In the Fourth Circuit, the law on this issue is relatively straightforward.
Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina all follow the majority rule. All of the courts in these states have all categorically refused to allow plaintiffs to recover for emotional distress damages arising from the death of a pet. Kondaurov, 271 Va. at 657, 629 S.E.2d at 182; Carbasho v. Musulin, 217 W. Va. 359, 618 S.E.2d 368 (2005) (“[D]ogs are personal property and damages for sentimental value, mental suffering, and emotional distress are not recoverable for the negligently inflicted death of a dog.”); Shera v. N.C. State Univ. Vet. Teaching Hosp., 216 N.C. App. 117, 120–21, 723 S.E.3d 352, 354–55 (2012) (explaining that, in North Carolina, the damage award for the death of a pet is limited to the fair market value of the animal).
Maryland has gone one step further and has enacted a statute which specifically prohibits plaintiffs from recovering emotional distress damages arising from the death of a pet. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 11-110.
The only outlier is the District of Columbia. D.C. has not passed any relevant statute on this issue. There are no reported D.C. decisions which address whether a plaintiff may recover noneconomic damages for the death of her pet. Nevertheless, considering the extreme weight of persuasive authority flooding in from all directions, a plaintiff in D.C. would likely be unable to recover for emotional damages. Indeed, a court would be extremely hard-pressed to find that emotional distress damages are available in D.C., but prohibited in every other neighboring jurisdiction within the Fourth Circuit.
In other words, all dogs might go to heaven, but if they pass away in the Fourth Circuit, their owners probably won’t win damages for emotional distress.