Jun 4

Romeo’s Legacy — Emotional Distress Damages For The Pet Owner

Many of us share our homes with four-legged creatures and, with their every act of affection and seemingly boundless joy, our pets have a way of burrowing themselves deep into our hearts. After just a short while, we can’t even imagine our lives without them in it.

So, what does the law say should happen to someone who intentionally interferes with our joys of pet ownership by harming or destroying our pet?

In February 2000, in a fit of road rage after having been bumped from the rear in traffic by another driver, Andrew Burnett angrily confronted the other driver and took the driver’s bichon frise dog, Leo, from her lap and hurled it into oncoming traffic on a busy road near the San Jose International Airport, where Leo died. Some nine years later (really? it had to take that long?), Burnett was convicted of felony animal cruelty and was given the maximum sentence available of three years in prison.

But, Burnett’s conviction did nothing to restore Leo to his owner or to ease her intense grief caused by Leo’s death. The dog’s owner had suffered a real emotional loss by Burnett’s conduct and his sentence did nothing to compensate her for it. Which then raises the question — Can a pet owner be compensated in civil monetary damages for the mental suffering experienced when a third party intentionally kills or harms the pet?

Let’s look at the case of Plotnik v. Meihaus (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1590 for the answer.

And So The Trouble Begins

The Plotniks and David Meihaus were adjoining property owners in Laguna Niguel, California. When the Plotniks bought their home, there was an existing three-foot fence on the property line. But, after experiencing problems with Meihaus, the Plotniks built a new six-foot fence to provide them greater insulation against those problems. Meihaus, however, sued the Plotniks and their homeowners association over the fence, which case was eventually settled with the entry of mutual restraining orders and an agreement by the Plotniks to move their fence back three feet from the property line. The agreement contained a standard attorney’s fees provision contained in most settlement agreements.

However, this was only the beginning of misery for the Plotniks. They claimed that Meihaus dumped his yard clippings in the three foot corridor between the Plotniks’ fence and the common boundary line, made obscene gestures to the Plotniks and their children, damaged their trees and the fence, and engaged in various acts of intimidation directed towards them and their family members.

One day, David Plotnik heard banging on the fence and he went out, with camera in hand, to investigate the noise and to photograph the offending yard clippings. While he did so, the Plotniks’ 12″ miniature pinscher, “Romeo”, escaped and made his way into Meihaus’s yard. When Plotnik had made his way around the house and over to the Meihaus residence, he arrived just in time to see Romeo roll across the yard, through a gate, and hit a tree in the Plotnik yard. Plotnik immediately entered Meihaus’s yard and saw Meihaus returning to his house with a baseball bat in hand. When Plotnik confronted Meihaus about why he had attacked Romeo, Meihaus denied having struck the dog and claimed that he had only used the bat to “guide” Romeo back to the Plotniks’ property.

The Trial

The Plotniks sued Meihaus under an assortment of legal theories, including trespass to personal property and negligence. The jury awarded the Plotniks monetary damages for their costs incurred for Romeo’s surgery and post-operative care, and for the emotional distress that each of them suffered as a result of the baseball bat incident.

Meihaus appealed the verdict, arguing that he had lawfully exercised his right to self-defense. The Court of Appeal rejected that argument stating that the jury’s findings that he had not acted in self-defense could not be disturbed.

More importantly, Meihaus argued that a pet owner could not recover monetary damages for emotional distress suffered as a result of injuries caused to the pet. All pet owners will be pleased to know that the Court of Appeal disagreed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeals denied recovery under a negligence theory. It ruled, however, that a dog is an item of personal property to its owner and that Romeo’s owner could clearly recover the economic, or out-of-pocket, losses attributable to the dog’s surgery and post-operative care under a trespass to chattels theory. The real question was whether emotional distress damages were also recoverable.

The Court found no California cases which stated that emotional distress damages were not recoverable and it agreed with published decisions from other states which awarded damages for a pet owner’s emotional distress. It quoted with approval from the case of LaPorte v. Associated Independents, Inc. (Fla. 1964) 163 So.2nd 267, 269: “The affection of a master for his dog is a very real thing and … the malicious destruction of the pet provides an element of damage for which the owner should recover, irrespective of the value of the animal…”

Quoting favorably from a very old California case (Johnson v. McConnell (1889) 80 Cal. 545, at 549), the Court noted: “While it has been said that [dogs] have nearly always been held ‘to be entitled to less regard and protection than more harmless domestic animals,’ it is equally true that there are no other domestic animals to which the owner or his family can become more strongly attached, or the loss of which will be more keenly felt.”

Meihaus’s Ultimate Comeuppance

In what to most pet-owning lawyers would seem to be the most ironic, yet deserving, comeuppance received by Meihuas for having applied his Louisville Slugger™ to Romeo’s hindquarters is that the Plotiniks were awarded $93,780 in attorney’s fees. The appellate court found that Meihaus’s conduct violated the terms of the restraining orders which were provided in the original settlement agreement. As such, on a breach of contract theory, the court found a basis to affirm the trial court’s award to the Plotniks of their attorney’s fees expense incurred during the trial.

What Does The Plotnik Decision Mean?

The Plotnik case now makes clear that, in California, a pet owner may recover monetary damages for the emotional distress which the owner suffers as a result of the intentional conduct of a third party in killing or injuring the pet. The decision is limited to cases involving intentionally wrongful conduct and does not apply to cases where the animal is injured through the mere negligence of the third party.

This is something that most pet owners would intrinsically seem to know in their hearts is right or fair; it only took a while for the courts in California to find a case with the right facts to allow the law to be firmly enunciated.