Supreme Court of Georgia Clarifies Damages Recoverable for Death of a Pet

dachshundIn an earlier post, we looked at an intriguing Court of Appeals decision in which the Court ruled that when a dog had a non-existent or nominal fair market value, the damages recoverable for the negligent death of a pet were limited to the actual value of the pet, which included economic damages such as veterinary expenses. However, in a recent opinion, the Supreme Court of Georgia reversed, in part, the Court of Appeals’ limitations on the appropriate measure of damages.

As a reminder, this case arose from the the death of a mixed-breed dachshund who was owned by the plaintiffs. The dachshund’s death coincided with the dog’s boarding at an Atlanta kennel. The dachshund had been boarded at the kennel for 10 days, along with the plaintiff’s mixed-breed Labrador retriever, who had been prescribed an anti-inflammatory medication. The plaintiff had given personnel at the kennel the medication along with instructions detailing how it should be administered to the Labrador retriever. Shortly after being returned to the plaintiff, the dachshund suffered acute renal failure, which the plaintiff alleged was caused by the kennel’s staff negligently administering the medication intended for the Labrador retriever to the much smaller dachshund. The dachshund underwent various veterinary interventions over the next nine months but ultimately died.

The plaintiff brought suit against the kennel, asserting various claims sounding in fraud and negligence. The kennel ultimately moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s claims failed as a matter of law because recoverable damages for the pet were limited to the market value of the pet, and since the plaintiff proffered no evidence demonstrating that the dachshund had a market value, there were no damages. The trial court denied the summary judgment motion in substantial part, finding that the plaintiff could present evidence of the actual value of the dog, which included both the reasonable veterinary expenses related to the dachshund’s treatment as well as non-economic evidence related to the dog’s intrinsic value to the couple. The Court of Appeals granted interlocutory appeal of the summary judgment order and reversed in part, holding that in “the absence of a market value [being] shown, ‘the measure of damages . . . is the actual value to the owner,’” but evidence of non-economic factors regarding the dog’s intrinsic value would not be admissible for the purpose of establishing the actual value. Barking Hound Village, LLC v. Monyak, 331 Ga. App. 811, 813-15 (2015) (quoting Cherry v. McCutchen, 65 Ga. App. 301, 304 (1941)). Unsatisfied that the Court of Appeals did not limit damages to the market value of the dog, the kennel appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court of Georgia substantially agreed with the Court of Appeals but did reverse in one key respect. Specifically, the Supreme Court clarified that the fair market value, not the actual value of the animal, was the appropriate measure of damages but that these damages were not the exclusive form of recoverable damages.

Indeed, the Supreme Court agreed that recoverable damages for the death of a pet are not limited to the fair market value of the dog at the time of its loss but instead include reasonable expenses associated with veterinary care resulting from the injury to the animal. See Telfair County v. Webb, 119 Ga. 916, 919 (1904) (noting that a plaintiff is entitled to recover compensation for expenses incurred in treating an injured horse). Furthermore, despite the defendant’s protestations otherwise, the Supreme Court concluded that these damages are not capped based on the fair market value of the animal, but instead they are damages that are separate from other recoverable damages for the loss of the fair market value of the animal.

In determining the fair market value of an animal, the Supreme Court noted that one could establish such value through “evidence that [the animal] was of a particular breed [or] had certain qualities,” or “by witnesses who knew the market value of such animal.” Columbus R.R. Co. v. Woolfolk, 128 Ga. 631, 635 (1907). Furthermore, although the Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court’s conclusion that “damages for the intrinsic value of the dog are not recoverable,” Monyak, 331 Ga. App. at 815, the Supreme Court noted that non-economic evidence was not categorically inadmissible. Instead, the Supreme Court held that qualitative evidence—for instance, testimony related to an animal’s “breed, age, training, temperament, and use”—was admissible for the purpose of establishing the fair market value. Accordingly, as long as the evidence related to the fair market value of the dog rather than simply its personal value to the owner, it would be admissible for the purpose of determining damages.

As the Supreme Court noted at the beginning of its opinion, the death of a pet is an issue “near and dear to the heart of many a Georgian,” and the Supreme Court’s ruling brings much-needed clarity to this area of law. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s ruling shows that one may be compensated for the loss of an animal, and those who have prematurely lost a pet as a result of the possible negligence of another party should consider finding experienced counsel to determine whether legal action may be warranted. The Atlanta dog bite attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have considerable experience with pet injury claims, and they are prepared to provide you with guidance in assessing the viability of a pet injury case. If you have a possible claim and would like to learn more about your potential legal options, please feel free to contact us to schedule a free case consultation.

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