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If Someone Harms Your Pet, Can You Collect Damages for Emotional Distress?

Apr 28, 2021 | Written by: Tracy B. Bussel, Esq. |

For many, pets are extensions of our families. They are like children, and the love they provide is unconditional. So, what happens when your beloved pet is injured or killed by another animal or worse yet, a human?

The New Jersey Supreme Court has in the past ruled that no matter how much you love your pet, you cannot collect damages for the emotional distress you suffered as a result of your pet’s death. However, because pets have been regarded as personal property, pet owners can recover for the “market value” of the pet in addition to any special damages arising from the loss of the animal, such as medical treatment rendered to the animal. 

For instance, in McDougall v. Lamm, the plaintiff watched her dog die as a larger dog mauled it. McDougall sued the owners of the bigger dog for both negligence and emotional distress. The Court concluded that a plaintiff was not entitled to recover for the emotional distress experienced for witnessing her dog being killed, as our Supreme Court and Legislature had not yet provided for this loss and the plaintiff’s loss was limited to the dog’s “intrinsic” monetary value.

However, this April, an Appellate Court in New Jersey made recovery easier for certain plaintiffs seeking compensation for intentional infliction of emotional distress resulting from the death of a pet. An Appellate Court in Quesada v. Compassion First Pet Hospitals said a trial judge erred in throwing out the pet owner’s claim after applying a bystander liability standard instead of a direct liability standard. In Quesada, the plaintiff brought his cat to the Red Bank Animal Hospital where he was given a grim diagnosis and advised euthanization was necessary. The veterinarian informed the plaintiff that during the euthanization, the cat bit one of the nurses and, pursuant to state law, a “brain tissue sample” was required to determine whether the cat had rabies, despite being given the cat’s vaccination records and being advised the cat was only an indoor cat. The veterinarian informed the plaintiff that the cat’s body would be released the following day to the Hamilton Pet Meadow for cremation, per the plaintiff's request, and the plaintiff advised he intended to display the cat’s body for viewing prior to cremation. Unfortunately, at no point did the veterinarian explain to plaintiff what a “brain tissue sample” entailed, nor did the vet provide other options for such sampling. At the cat’s viewing, plaintiff discovered that the cat had been decapitated and his head disposed of.

The plaintiff became extremely emotional and, as a result, developed severe mental health problems among other health issues. After dismissal of his claims based upon the bystander liability, the Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal order, finding that the direct liability standard applied, and remanded the case for trial.

This decision gives hope to those people who lose a beloved pet and can prove the following: (a) the defendant owed a duty of reasonable care to the plaintiff; (b) the defendant breached that duty; (c) the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress; and (d) the defendant's breach of duty was the proximate cause of the injury.



Tracy Bussel, Esq., is a partner at Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC, and practices primarily in the areas of employment law, civil rights litigation, general liability, insurance defense, and the representation of public entities.  Contact Ms. Bussel at 908-735-5161 or via email.

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Any statements made herein are solely for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon or construed as legal advice.