When an animal is injured or killed as a result of someone else’s fault, the law generally treats it as a loss of property, and the owner is likely to recover only the resale value of the pet or the cost of vet’s bills. That usually isn’t that much money. A recent case by the Oregon Supreme Court raises the question of whether the court is likely to allow greater damages, but in my opinion, it probably won’t.
The recent case involved a prosecution for animal neglect. The defendant was convicted of neglecting 20 animals, mostly horses and goats, generally by failing to properly feed them. He argued that under Oregon law, he could only be sentenced for one conviction because the law requires separate victims to be sentenced for multiple convictions arising out of one episode. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that each animal was a separate victim.
This ruling raises the question of whether the court was leaning toward a general reevaluation of the policies that recognized animals primarily as property. The reasoning of the court was based on Oregon’s animal cruelty laws as they were rewritten in 1985 and the law allowing multiple sentencing for multiple victims as it was enacted in 1985 and modified by a 1986 initiative. Although the information presented to the legislature was considered, and noted that public perception of animal rights was shifting, the legislature probably didn’t think it was going beyond the possibility of prosecutions and sentencing to protect animals individually.
Oregon’s animal neglect statutes are written to state that neglect is commuted when “an animal,” not “animals,” are deprived of care. The standards for minimum care are written with reference to the needs of “the animal.” The court decided that by using the singular, the legislature indicated that it was treating each animal separately.
That court also looked at the history of animal cruelty laws. Although in most states, animal cruelty laws focused on the rights of the owners or the general morality of the public, in Oregon, there has been a long tradition of focusing on the rights of individual animals to be protected, and this was underscored by the 1985 revisions of the animal cruelty laws to make abandonment of animals a crime.
Despite this, on the civil side, the law generally allows owners to recover only the resale value of injured or killed animals. That probably won’t change as a result of the court’s opinion. The focus on animals’ individual interest in the animal cruelty laws raises a different policy issue that the value of the animal to an owner. In addition, there is one safety valve in the law, as it now exists, that does allow for some increase in recovery by an owner. If the owner’s claim is based on an intentional taking or destruction of the animal, such as, effectively, stealing it, the law has for several decades allowed the owner to claim emotional damages. The courts probably are not going to go beyond that point without guidance from the legislature or a much clearer recognition that public attitudes about the value of pets have changed.
If your pet, or other animal, has been injured, killed, or taken, you may want to talk to a lawyer about it. Bringing as much information about the incident as you can collect will help the lawyer estimate the value ot the case, particularly if you can prove that the incident was intentional.
The availability of emotional damages leaves open the question of whether those damages can be proven. One of the best ways to prove the damages is to start preparing a log of your reaction to the incident and how the loss of the pet affected you. Bringing this information, and witnesses to your reactions, to the lawyer’s attention may be very useful.