'Dog Days' of Tort Liability for Those Who Intentionally Harm Pets

'Dog Days' of Tort Liability for Those Who Intentionally Harm Pets?

The California Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that follows a recent trend in emotional distress caselaw, acknowledging the emotional value between dogs and humans.  The case, Plotnik v. Meihaus, concerned a long running dispute between two neighbors that came to a head when the Defendant, John Meihaus, used a bat to "guide" the Plotnik's dog out of his yard.  This "guiding" resulted in over $3,000 dollars in surgery to the Plotniks' dog.  Law.com summarized the facts as follows:

The Plotniks and Meihaus had been in a long-running dispute over a fence that divided their property. A previous suit had been settled with the parties agreeing not to harass, vex or annoy each other. Still, the Plotniks alleged, Meihaus would make obscene gestures when they passed him on the street, and he had warned Joyce Plotnik not to let Romeo urinate on other people's lawns.

On April 9, 2009, David Plotnik heard loud banging on the fence. He opened a gate to see what was going on and Romeo ran onto Meihaus' property. He heard the dog bark and squeal, then saw it roll back through the gate and hit a tree. "Why did you hit our dog?" Plotnik testified he yelled at Meihaus. "You need to be more courteous and get your dogs to stop barking," he said Meihaus told him.

The Plotkins sued Meihaus for violating their settlement agreement and for negligent and emotional distress on a variety of grounds. The jury awarded the couple $431,000 plus $94,000 in attorneys fees against Meihaus and two of his adult children.

This case highlights the difference in emotional distress stemming from negligent conduct and emotional distress stemming from intentional conduct.  California, like Pennsylvania[1], traditionally disallowed awards for emotional distress stemming from negligent conduct; and, in fact, the Plotkins' damage awards stemming from negligent conduct by Meihaus were overturned on appeal.  However, to the extent that the Plotniks' emotional distress stemmed from the intentional conduct of Meihaus, those damages for emotional disrtress were upheld.

While Pennsylvania courts have not yet confronted the issue directly, some related caselaw provides guidance.  A 2006 case, Mest v. Cabot, held that Pennsylvania dairy farmers' lack of personal injury would not preclude them from recovering emotional distress damages on their intentional tort claims stemming from alleged fluoride poisoning of farmers' cows.[2]  Similarly, In Banasczek v. Kowalski, 10 Pa. D & C 3rd (1994), the complaint for emotional distress alleged that the defendant intentionally shot two of the plaintiff's dogs.  The court dismissed the defendant's preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer "... since we think the more enlightened view is to allow recovery for emotional distress in the instance of malicious destruction of a pet ..."

However, Pennsylvania does have a line of cases that cuts against the right of an owner to collect emotional damages for harm to their pet dog.  Cases as recent as 1995 have asserted the position that a dog is property, not equivalent to a person under the law, and as such dog owners cannot assert claims for emotional distress.[3]  Similarly, PA courts have not traditionally acknowledged the relationship between a human and a dog as sufficient to meet the requirements for a loss of companionship claim, and Pennsylvania does not regard a cherished and beloved pet as a unique form of personal property entitling the owner to more than the pet's actual value.[4]

The law of both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress has been, and will continue to be, one of the more fluid areas of civil liability in Pennsylvania.  While Pennsylvania Courts have not yet acknowledged emotional distress damages as they stem from harm to or loss of ones pet, other States are clearly moving in that direction.  As pets are increasingly humanized in today's society, the potential for liability grows more and more.  As every first year law student can recall, a person who commits a tort takes their victim as they find them; where one's intentional conduct results in harm to a pet, and that harm causes emotion distress, the resulting damage award may only be limited by the number of pet owners on the jury.

[1] Bobin v. Sammarco, 1995 WL 303632, May 18, 1995, (3d Cir. 1995) (diallowing a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress from veterinarians negligent conduct).

[2] Mest v. Cabot, 449 F.3d 502, 2006 WL 1503641 (3d Cir. 2006).  Ultimately, the farmers' claims failed as the harm to their cows was determined to be negligently, not intentionally, caused.

[3] See Bobin v. Sammarco, supraciting Miller v. Peraino, 626 A.2d 637, 640 (Pa.Super. Ct.1993) (for purposes of intentional infliction of emotional distress, dogs are not persons).

[4] See Daughen v. Fox , 372 Pa.Super. 405, (1988).