Watson Spence: Georgia Supreme Court Addresses the Measure of the Value of a Family Pet

Chris Foreman

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Most people, including yours truly, consider their pets to be integral members of the family. Georgia law, however, treats family pets as "personal property." In a case reported as Barking Hound Village v. Monyak, S15G1184, the Supreme Court of Georgia recently tackled an issue that Chief Justice Hugh Thompson described as "near and dear to the heart of many a Georgian in that it involved the untimely death of a beloved family pet." The Georgia Supreme Court had the difficult task of determining the "proper measure of damages" available to the owners of a pet injured or killed through the negligence of another.

Robert and Elizabeth Monyak boarded their eight and one-half year old mixed-breed dachshund, Lola, and their 13 year old mixed breed Labrador, Callie, with Barking Hound Village during a 10 day vacation. The Monyak's left instructions with Barking Hound to administer anti-inflammatory arthritis medication that had been prescribed to Callie. Three days after picking up their dogs, Lola was diagnosed with acute renal failure. Despite extensive veterinary expenses and procedures, including dialysis, over the course of the next nine months, Lola ultimately died as a result of renal failure caused by the administration of a toxic dose of Callie's anti-inflammatory arthritis medication. Barking Hound administered the medication to the wrong dog. The Monyak's sued Barking Hound Village and its manager for damages they incurred as the result of the death of Lola, including the more than $67,000.00 in extensive vet bills paid attempting to rescue Lola.

The well-established principle in Georgia concerning property damage is "a plaintiff cannot recover an amount of damages against a tortfeasor greater than the fair market value of the property prior to its impairment." Barking Hound argued that there were no damages as the "fair market value" of Lola was essentially zero. Lola had been adopted, free of charge, from a rescue shelter, she was not a show dog, and she generated no income for the Monyaks. Barking Hound argued Lola's value to the public was non-existent. The Monyaks argued that the Court should not apply the market value cap to Lola as limiting the damages to market value would be "unjust" and "against both Georgia precedent and the weight of authority from other jurisdictions."

The Supreme Court agreed with the Monyaks that a market value cap was an improper measure of damages and that the measure of the value of Lola was the fair market value of Lola plus interest and any reasonable medical costs and other expenses incurred in treating her for her injuries. The reasonableness of the vet bills depend on the facts of each case, however, the Court cited factors to consider, among others, such as "the severity of the injuries [to the pet]," "whether [the pet] was maintained as part of the owner's household," and "the likelihood of success of the medical procedure." Importantly, the Court stressed that the sentimental value of Lola to the Monyaks was not an element of damages nor was it proper evidence to determine the value of Lola, however, the Court held that certain quantitative and qualitative evidence about Lola could be presented to the jury to establish her "attributes for determining [her] fair market value." "The key is ensuring that such evidence relates to the value of the dog in a fair market, not the value of the dog solely to its owner."

Interestingly, the Court's ruling could lead to varying results, including the result that a rich family's pet would be worth more than a poor family's pet in the courtroom because the rich family can afford more expensive veterinary treatment. The issues addressed by the Court extend beyond household pets and a number of the cases cited by the Supreme Court dealt with animals such as horses. Due to Georgia's agriculture rich economy, the Court's holding will likely lead to a number of interesting Court battles involving animals above and beyond household pets, likely including livestock.

In addition to the issues addressed in Barking Hound, family pets can present unique legal issues for their owners. For example, dangerous dog statutes are now commonplace and can impact a pet owner's liability in the event of a dog bite. Further, because of their status as "property," family pets can present issues in divorce disputes.

The attorneys at Watson Spence are equipped to assist you and your family with your legal needs, even your family of the four legged kind.