Oral argument before the N.J. Supreme Court
In McDougall v. Lamm, A-99-10, the NJ Supreme Court was asked to decide whether “one who witnesses a beloved pet violently killed by another animal can sue for emotional-distress damages?” If the Court answers yes, it would be a broad expansion of Portee v. Jaffee, 84 N.J. 88 (1980)
a Morris Plains woman was walking her maltipoo, a cross between a maltese and a poodle, when a large, mixed-breed dog attacked, grabbed it by the neck, shook it violently and dropped it dead to the ground.
Joyce McDougall sued the owner of the attacking dog, Charlot Lamm, alleging emotional distress. She said her dog, Angel, had been her close companion for years and the loss was especially hard for her since her husband had left and her children had gone off to college.”
Trial court and Appellate Division rulings
This N.J. personal injury law suit was dismissed on summary judgment, and the Appellate Division affirmed:
“Saying, ‘While we can understand plaintiff’s considerable attachment to her dog, and the distress she suffered at witnessing such an event, we agree with the trial judge’s conclusion that plaintiff’s damages are limited to the replacement cost of the dog’ ” (Via NJ Law Journal).
This was a horrifying event, which would devastate any dog owner. But, can you just imagine the personal injury law suit flood gates this would open, if the Supremes were to extend Portee v. Jaffee, supra, to include pets. Here is some of the exchanges between counsel and the Court:
Justice Anne Patterson asked Stein to be more specific about the theory of liability.
‘I don’t think I have to advocate the broadening of the [Portee] doctrine to define companionship,’ said Stein.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked whether an entire family could sue if, for example, a family pet were harmed by a veterinarian’s malpractice and died a painful death at home.
Stein said testimony would have to be taken to determine which family members had a close relationship with the pet. ‘There must be a special relationship with the animal,’ he said.
‘What about the relationship between a hamster and a child?’ asked Justice Barry Albin.
Stein said he did not believe a rational jury could find a basis for a claim in that sort of situation.
‘How do we know that?’ Patterson asked.
‘That’s the confidence we have in the jury system, that [jurors] will deal with these things in a rational way,’ Stein replied.
Rabner asked what types of animals, then, would be included in an expansion of Portee.
‘It would have to be any animal, wouldn’t it?’ said Justice Virginia Long.
‘I would have difficulty with a reptile,’ said Stein.
Long said pet birds live a long time and owners develop close relationships with them.
I am an animal lover. I volunteer at an animal shelter, rescued 5 cats, and experienced the grief of losing a pet; although never by the jaws of an unleashed, out-of-control, dog. I don’t think it is a good public policy decision, or makes good law to expand the scope of Portee, supra, to include dogs, or any pets.
In my humble, animal loving, life long, died-in-polyester, victim’s advocate mind, the existing statutes, municipal ordinances, and case law provide adequate remedies for pet owners. I am unwilling to accord the animal planet with the same emotional connection human beings have with their parents and children. Despite the fact that many pet owners treat their pets like human beings or better…They are not human beings. A little pony with antlers, or your favorite dog with a Ralph Loren winter coat is bad karma. Are these over-the-top pet aficionados doing it for the pets benefit? C’mon man.
How about you? What do you think?