Companion Animals, more than “fair market value”

Posted by on Feb 8, 2010 in Animals & the Law | 0 comments

Tennessee Senator Steven Cohen initiated a change in state law, which in its original form was called the “T-Bo Act” (§ 44-17-403). “T-Bo” was the name of the senator’s dog, who had been attacked and killed by another dog. With this statute, Tennessee became the first state to codify the right to recover damages for loss of companionship for tortious harm to a companion animal.[1]

Death of pet caused by negligent act of another – Damages
(a)(1) If a person’s pet is killed or sustains injuries which result in death caused by the unlawful and intentional, or negligent, act of another or the animal of another, the trier of fact may find the individual causing the death or the owner of the animal causing the death liable for up to $5000 in noneconomic damages…

(d) Limits for noneconomic damages set out… shall be limited to compensation for the loss of the reasonably expected society, companionship, love and affection of the pet. [2]

The Tennessee law, before this statute, limited damages to the fair market value of an animal; there was no recourse, nothing acknowledging the emotional component of the human-companion animal relationship. In seeking to change the law with this statute, ultimately what the senator was seeking was the recognition of the special nature of a relationship with one’s companion animal; also, in doing so, the law would implicitly distinguish companion animals from other personal property or chattel. The senator clearly had a personal, emotional stake in pursuing this change in the law, having suffered the loss of a companion animal through tortuous injury first hand. Although he could not gain financially from this bill, this “win” had an intrinsic reward for him. Finally, should the senator ever have another dog and similar tragic events occur, he will have the ability to seek damages that reflect not only the physical loss (traditionally, damages based on “fair market value” or “replacement value”) but also take into account the emotional loss.

Those benefiting from this statute are the citizens of Tennessee that have companion animals, specifically those who have companion animals killed by another. In this way, however his motives may have been driven by personal experience and emotions, Senator Cohen did provide a benefit to a large group of his own constituents. In addition, the act, as the first of its kind, created a ripple effect in other states. In 2002, an Oregon jury awarded $136,000 to a family that lost four dogs when a neighbor intentionally poisoned them; in a 2007 Chicago case, the city paid $27,500 to a plaintiff whose dog had been shot by a police officer running through the plaintiff’s yard while in pursuit of a suspect; in 2008, three men were ordered to pay $30,000 after killing a Chihuahua.[3] By inspiring other states to adopt similar statutes, and inspiring courts to make these kinds of decisions, the actions of Senator Cohen benefit the citizens of other jurisdictions beyond Tennessee’s borders. On a broader level, the enactment of the T-Bo Act has fueled the fire of the animal rights movement and often is cited in subsequent legal arguments against the current property status of animals. People look back at this pioneering state law as one of the landmark cases illustrating the trend in modern-day courts towards recognizing that animals are substantively different from a person’s car or even an irreplaceable family heirloom. By expanding the possible damages for a lost companion animal to include a consideration of loss of companionship and affection, Senator Cohen’s T-Bo Act opened a new door for animal guardians and animals alike.


[1] Animal Law, Cases and Materials. Waisman, Frasch, and Wagman, ed. Carolina Academic Press, 2006. p. 77

[2] http://www.animallaw.info/statutes/stustn44_17_403.htm

[3] “Why Is a Dead Chihuahua Worth 30K?” Peter Lewis. MSN Money. January 26, 2009.

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Dog Licenses — It’s the Law!

Posted by on Feb 1, 2010 in Animals & the Law | 0 comments

This afternoon at a local Starbuck’s, there was a flyer, with picture, posted on the community bulletin board: Missing.  Murray.  Terrier Mix.  Last seen near Oracle and First.  Four days had passed since this last sighting.  Last week, a similar flyer was taped to a front door of Eller College.  Missing.  Champ.  Champ looked like some kind of Boxer mix.  This morning, the flyer was gone.  What became of Champ?  I have found more than a handful of dogs by the roadside and coaxed them into my car.  All but one had a collar with tags, which made reuniting them with their guardians easy.  One, with no tags, still made it back to her home – with a little luck or a small miracle, depending on how you look at it.  The grim statistic is that 9 out of 10 dogs who are found without any identification (tag or microship) are never reunited with their families.

Provisions of Chapter 6.04 require all dogs three months of age or older to have a current Pima County license affixed to a collar and worn at all times.  To obtain the license, the dog must have a current rabies vaccination, administered by a licensed veterinarian.

Anyone who has a companion animal is likely to wax poetic if you ask her about her non-human family member.  Yet, one of the most traditional forms of regulation when it comes to domesticated animals — licensing — remains unpopular with guardians to the point of being violated by the majority.  During a recent look by Oro Valley (Pima County) into licensing compliance among its residents, it was estimated that the compliance rate is as low as 25%. 

The regulation of dog licensing has several benefits, both to the dog guardian and to the general community.  For the dog guardian, licensing protects an “owner” interest in his “property” and the tag can be essential to reuniting a lost dog with his family.  More generally there is a public health interest, benefiting those with dogs and other community members alike: licenses and the yearly renewals require up-to-date rabies vaccinations.  Also, licensing fees often are used towards funding a community’s animal control program, which in addition to rescuing strays focuses on other public safety measures.  For Tucsonans, animal control takes care of everything from lost pups and kittens to that rattlesnake that somehow made it into the garage.

In addition to these reasons, there is another major benefit to this regulation.  Especially in cities like Tucson, where the local animal control has yet to adopt a no-kill program, there is only a brief window of time for a captured animal to be reunited with his family before being euthanized. Despite a mandated holding period, there are multiple exceptions to the rule that allow animals to be euthanized sometimes within hours of their capture.  Pima Animal Control admits to destroying between 60-70% of the animals that come through its doors.  If a dog is separated from his guardian, the clock is ticking and odds are against him if he is not readily identifiable.  Having a tag can mean the difference between life and death.

Why is a regulation so good so unpopular?  The first and most obvious answer is money: in Pima County, the yearly licensing fee is now $15.  And the fee skyrockets to $60 for unneutered and unsprayed animals.  People often see these yearly fees as wasted money because they do not consider services of animal control other than stray pick-ups and the local shelter, and so they do not see an immediate use or interest in the provided services.  Also, when dogs are “inside pets,” it can be a challenge getting people to recognize the possibility of their own companion animal being lost, so the need for a tag seems negligible. Certainly, if the dog never leaves the house and backyard, the risk of getting caught in violation of the ordinance dwindles to nothing. Finally, some may disregard the requirements simply because they do not want to even think about the possibility of being separated from their four-legged loved one.  Essentially, these owners are in denial… as many people can be when it comes to unpleasant realities.

There are some other contributing factors to the unpopularity of licensing.  First, the attached requirement of the rabies vaccination might play a substantial role in the non-compliance of some guardians.  Those who do not want to be bothered with vet visits and vaccinations, or those who have dogs with health issues that might be negatively affected by the vaccination, deliberately refuse to meet this requirement of the license; in choosing against the rabies vaccination, they cannot keep a current tag on their dog’s collar.  At best, they will opt for one of the name/phone number tags that a person can purchase at an engraving vending machine at many local pet stores. And now, better than tags — that can be lost even more easily than a poodle — we have microchipping, which is the surest way to protect a dog from being separated from his home.  Dangling tags on collars seem antiquated.  Another major obstacle is the lack of enforcement.  That officers do not enforce the licensing rule tends to validate the view against these licensing ordinances.  It is highly unlikely (unless, perhaps you take Fido to a dog park), that an officer is going to approach you and ask why your dog is not wearing a tag.  It is even less likely that an officer is going to walk up to you and your dog and check to see that a tag is current.  If law enforcement so obviously thinks it is a waste of time and resources to bother with enforcing licensing regulations, why should anyone care?

As illustrated, this “regulation” is failing to shape much of anyone’s behavior, save a minority of conscientious citizens.  Regulation without enforcement is regulation that has been set up to fail from the start.  To make this regulation more effective, local law enforcement needs to make periodic checks of animals that are being walked along neighborhood streets and at local parks.  Periodic checks will provide incentive to enough people that there should be noticeable improvement from the shockingly low compliance rates that we have now.  And periodic checks would not be so burdensome on officers to warrant serious resistance from the town and police administrations.  Increased enforcement along with an ongoing and consistent public outreach campaign that highlights the personal interests of dog guardians will be the best way to garner support and compliance.  But people with dogs are not the only ones a community can appeal to – surely, there is a human-interest component to every lost animal story.  In addition to the emotional appeal, the practical appeal of public safety concerns makes the licensing of dogs a regulatory issue that truly matters to everyone. 

When an entire community realizes they have a stake in the compliance, its members are more likely to openly support the regulation and openly disapprove of violations.  And having a neighbor who scowls at you when you walk out your front door with an unlicensed Fido on his leash may be all the incentive you really need to get your dog that shiny new tag.

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