Pet Medical MalpracticePublished December 15, 2008
My dog, Taxi!, is my best friend, my son, my husband, my boyfriend, my spiritual advisor, my personal trainer, my comic relief and I'm pretty sure we're working on a screenplay together. The role he plays in my life is much more than just dog. In a nation that provides 88.3 million cats and 74.8 million dogs with roofs over their furry heads, and one that is expected to spend an estimated -- and whopping -- $43.4 billion on pets in 2008, it's safe to say that others share this sentiment. Yet, the love and connection we feel for and with our pets are not recognized by our legal system. When a wrongful injury or death of an animal companion occurs, owners can only sue for the market value of the pet. Forget about loss of companionship, and pain and suffering; current lawviews pets as property, worth only their replacement value. "You can replace your car with an identical car, but you can't replace your cat with an identical cat. The relationship that you have with that cat, the history, is irreplaceable," says Stephan K. Otto, director of Legislative Affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "Valuing an important relationship in dollars and cents is a slap in the face for pet lovers," adds Dr. Susan Cohen, director of Counseling at New York City's Animal Medical Center, home to the nation's first-ever Pet Loss Support Group. "And it comes on top of the grief and guilt they often feel for having betrayed the pet that was in their care." The right to sue for non-economic damages has been an on-going issue, but progress is slowly being made. Not long ago, Rhode Island introduced the concept of "guardian" rather than "owner" into law with the hope that it would be a step toward comparing the status of animals to minors or children. In addition, Non-Economic Damages, Bill Number: MA S.B. 789 is currently pending in the state of Massachusetts. If passed, it would allow owners to argue for the full extent of their loss and not simply the market value. As Otto explains, "it's an attempt to have the legal system catch up with where society is today with respect to the value of animals in households and relationships with families. It comes down to should your pet have its day in court? It doesn't mean that you're going to get what you ask for, but you should have the ability to have your claim fully heard." Carolyn B. Matlock, attorney and managing editor of The Animal Legal Report, and herself a proponent, likens the movement to that of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. "They started as a concerned citizens group, realized that laws weren't up to date and that penalties for wrong-doings weren't there, and brought attention to the injustices. They were dealing with horse and buggy laws but, slowly, state-by-state things changed." No doubt, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has also played its part. When its Animal Law Program began in 2000, there were only nine Animal Law courses being offered ABA-accredited law schools. Now there are 95. Though it is clearly a growing field, the majority of lawyers practicing animal law -- upwards of 200 -- are doing so because they feel strongly about the issue. "Certainly there are other areas of the law that have a higher payday. In fact, pick any one," Otto laughs. "But I'll tell you this, you never have to look the other way with regard to your personal moral compass. It's nice to be able to work in an area where you don't have any question about whether your clients' best interests are being represented. As the plight continues to have courts place more value and respect on our pets, rest assured there are places where they'll always have it in abundance -- in our hearts and in our homes. Gail Eisenberg is a NYC-based freelance writer, co-star of the upcoming LOGO series, Cat Eisenberg, Dog Eisenberg, and Mom to her Lab mix, Taxi!. Visit her at www.GailEisenberg.com.
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