By JEREMY MCGRAW
For many of us, our four-legged canine friends truly are members of the family. Dogs have been special members of the Bordas & Bordas family since its inception and have long been featured in our firm photos. Barley and Guiness have most recently joined the likes of Daisy, Ivy, Otis, and Stubby as the furry friends that have welcomed visitors to our office. The dogs, in fact, host a Christmas party each year for the children of everyone who works at the firm.
The passing of the family dog can be a troublesome and sad event. What happens, though, if the wrongful acts of another result in the death of the family pet? Can you hold another person responsible for the pet's death? What type of compensation can you seek for the loss of your animal? Many may not realize it, but in most states the only compensation you can recover for the wrongful death of an animal would be market or replacement value.
That means your animal is really only worth what you could sell it for on the open market. For most house dogs, that amount might be very little, but for highly pedigreed show or stud dogs that could be much more. What about the emotional and sentimental connections we have with our pets, is that worth anything? The truth is that many of us, if pressed hard enough, might admit that we really like our dogs better than some of our human family members. Country Music artists Carrie Underwood and Billy Currington have both recently had hits comparing the love we get from our dogs to that we can find from other people.
This issue of the value we can assign to dogs has passed through the legislatures and courts of most states over the years. The Texas Supreme Court is currently facing the issue and the case has gotten some National attention. Some states allow for the recovery of emotional or sentimental damages for the death of a pet, but most do not.
Unfortunately, West Virginia is among the states that say no. A case from here in the Ohio Valley recently went to the West Virginia Supreme Court on this issue after a valley resident and her dog were struck by a motorist while on a walk. In Carbasho v. Musulin, 217 W.Va. 359 (2005), the Court said that "[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."
Justice Larry Starcher, now retired, wrote an entertaining dissenting opinion in favor of permitting recovery for the sentimental value of our pets and even quoted song lyrics to make his point. Even if the actual damages we can recover for the loss of a pet might be low, there is still an argument for punitive damages when the actions of a person in taking the life of an animal are egregious. Even courts in states that have limited recovery to the market value of an animal have upheld awards of punitive damages against bad actors. Perhaps parties could also argue in favor of cases for negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress as well.
States that have permitted owners to recover for sentimental or emotional value -- such as Rhode Island, Tennessee and California -- have largely done so through actions of their legislative branches. Perhaps the time has come to ask our legislature to take that same step.
The members and employees of Bordas & Bordas have long been dog lovers, owners and supporters of local animal shelters. Many animals need a good home and are just waiting for a new owner to love them. Please consider contacting local animal shelters, such as the Marshall County Animal Shelter, the Ohio County Animal Shelter, or the Belmont County Animal Rescue League to adopt a pet.
Jeremy McGraw is an attorney with the Wheeling law firm Bordas & Bordas.