I recently read a legal Q+A article from a Canadian paper, The Globe and Mail, addressing this very issue under Canadian law and wondered how Wisconsin would answer this question. As it turns out, each State has its own unique rules governing damages resulting from driver negligence. Here is all of the information you need to know.
Labeling A Dog As ‘Property’ Is Wrong
In the Wisconsin cases I found, the insurance company statements often argued that dogs are like personal property: if it costs too much to fix, just get a new one. In the three cases I reviewed, I was pleased to find that this deplorable, reprehensible argument was rejected by all trial court decisions. Moreover, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has indicated its leanings on the matter in a 2001 decision of Rabideau v. City of Racine.
That case involved the intentional killing of a dog by a police officer. The opinion started:
At the outset, we note that we are uncomfortable with the law’s cold characterization of a dog, such as Dakota, as mere “property.” Labeling a dog “property” fails to describe the value human beings place upon the companionship that they enjoy with a dog. A companion dog is not a fungible item, equivalent to other items of personal property. A companion dog is not a living room sofa or dining room furniture. This term inadequately and inaccurately describes the relationship between a human and a dog.
… Dogs are so much a part of the human experience that we need not cite to authority when we note that dogs work in law enforcement, assist the blind and disabled, perform traditional jobs such as herding animals and providing security, and, of course, dogs continue to provide humans with devoted friendship.
This opinion from the Supreme Court shows that the insurance company argument describing a dog as personally property is one that most judges and juries alike, will dismiss.
Is Emotional Distress From Pet Injury Compensated?
In the decision of Rabideau v. City of Racine, the court addressed claims for the emotional distress experienced by the owner who witnessed the killing, and rejected those claims. The court avoided deciding the additional issues of what claims would be allowed:
We decline to further address the proper means to measure this property loss or whether other elements, such as veterinary expenses incurred in treating a companion animal’s injuries, may be recovered. These issues were not thoroughly briefed by both parties.
Justice Abrahamson, in a separate opinion, urged the legislature to address the issue of what recovery should be allowed, but to this date, they have not done so.
Court Cases Involving Injured Dogs In Wisconsin
In the state of Wisconsin, I am happy to report that an injured dog’s owner would probably recover for the veterinarian costs, but the insurance company would likely fight to avoid payment if the vet bills are high.
There have been three trial court decisions that have addressed the matter. These decisions are not binding on any other judges, but they can be influential if they are from a well-respected judge.
In Piek v. Deering and State Farm, Milw. Cir. Ct 10-CV-2452, Mr. Piek sought damages for the cost of veterinary services after his dog was mauled by two pit bulls owned by the defendant, who was insured by State Farm. Mr. Piek paid over $3,000 for vet services and sought damages for that amount from State Farm. The State Farm lawyer admitted responsibility for the dog attack, but argued they should only be responsible for the cost of a new dog.
Pets are considered “personal property”; as such, the rules applicable to property damage apply. Here State Farm is willing to concede the value of Mr. Piek's dog is $400.00 and confess judgment in that amount. Mr. Piek, under Wisconsin law, is not entitled to any additional damages once the full value of the animal has been given.
The trial court denied the insurance company request to limit damages, and the dog owner ultimately recovered the costs of medical services.
In Hoffman v. American Family Insurance, Racine County case no 05-CV-2035, a large bull mastiff dog owned by American Family’s insured got out of its yard and attacked and severely injured a 5-year-old shitzu dog. The shitzu owner paid about $5,000 for the vet bills, but the dog died in spite of the extensive care it received. American Family similarly requested the judge to limit the damages “contending that as a matter of law, plaintiff could recover either the cost of replacing the dog or the cost of veterinary services, which ever of the two was less.” The trial court denied this request. The matter was presented to a jury, who awarded every penny of the vet bill.
In Grant v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co, Waukesha County Circuit Court # 06-CV-3164, Judge Donald J. Hassin Jr., held that a dog owner recover for the cost of veterinarian care for an injured dog, approximately $9,000.00. The dog sadly died in spite of this care. American Family argued that the damages were limited to the replacement cost of the dog. Judge Hassin held that the award of damages should include not only the replacement value of the dog, but also, the fair and reasonable costs necessary in the attempt to save the animal's life.
While, none of these decisions are binding on other courts, a string of cases like this is fairly persuasive and could affect future cases involving similar circumstances. I also believe these insurance companies should be called out for taking this reprehensible position on pets as mere property. If an individual causes damage to a dog by carelessness or neglect, their insurance company should be held responsible for the cost of the necessary treatment for recovery.
If you were on a jury in one of these cases, how would you rule? Would you consider a pet more than ‘property’?
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 While the decisions do not involve damages to a dog caused by a car accident, these were strong liability cases and that are, for practical purposes, the same as car accident liability.