Vt. Court Weighs What a Dog's Love Is Worth

Can animal lovers sue for emotional distress caused by pet's death?

December 17, 2009, 11:38 AM

Dec. 17, 2009— -- What's a dog's love worth?

That's the question before the Vermont Supreme Court today in a case that could create a new legal doctrine for animal lovers who sue when their beloved pets die from acts of malicious intent.

Sarah and Denis Scheele of Annapolis, Md., who brought the case, lost their mixed-breed dog "Shadow" in 2003 when a man fatally shot him after the pet wandering into his yard.

Lewis Dustin, 76, of Northfield, Vt., pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and was given a year probation. He also was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay $4,000 to the Scheeles for the costs of adoption, medical bills and cremation.

But the Scheeles say that doesn't come close to covering the emotional cost inflicted by the traumatic incident and loss of companionship, equating the death of Shadow to the death of a child.

"Shadow was our little boy, our son, our child," Sarah Scheele wrote on her Web site JusticeforShadow.com. "We loved him as if he were our own flesh and blood."

The couple filed a civil suit against Dustin in 2006, pressing the courts to recognize Shadow as a "member of the family, not mere property." They are seeking $6,000 in damages for "emotional distress" and loss of the "solace, affection, friendship, and love that they shared" with Shadow.

David Blythe, Dustin's lawyer, told ABCNews.com that what the Scheele's are asking for is unprecedented.

"The Vermont rule, which is consistent around the country, is that animals including pets are personal property, and if someone or something causes the death of an animal, you do not recover emotional distress damages," he said.

The Scheeles' lawyer Heidi Groff told ABCNews.com the Vermont high court has left the door open for pursuit of damages in situations like this one.

"The Vermont Supreme Court has previously said...that they recognize a special relationship between dogs and their owners and that that is a unique relationship that should and could be recognized by the court," she said.

Lawyers for both sides say neither Dustin nor the Scheeles dispute the facts of the incident, which occurred during the Scheeles' July 2003 visit to relatives in Northfield, Vt., a small town south of Montpelier.

Accounts provided by both sides indicate Shadow wandered out of sight of the Scheeles and into the neighboring yard of Dustin, who fired an air pellet rifle at the dog to scare him off his property.

"Suddenly, Shadow let out a horrific yelp," Sarah Scheele wrote of the moment on her Web site. "I screamed, 'Shadow! What's the matter sweetie?'… My mind then registered the 'pop' noise that I had heard and I yelled to my husband, 'Denis, I think Shadow has been shot!'"

Instead of hitting the dog in the rear, Blythe said, Dustin's bullet was a "one in a million shot" that had entered the chest of dog and severed its aorta.

Dustin, who did not attend today's hearing, declined to comment on the case when reached by ABCNews.com other than to say that he did not intend to kill the dog.

Should Pet Lovers Be Compensated for Emotional Loss?

"We cannot sleep, we cannot eat, we cannot laugh … all we can do is cry," Sarah Scheele wrote online after Shadow's death. "Denis has trouble focusing on work … not being able to put [away] the horrific memory of Shadow running and leaping into his arms screaming in pain. ... As his mommy, I feel so lost. I can't sleep and I can't stop crying. My days are so empty without my little boy."

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled earlier this year against a plaintiff who sought damages for the emotional loss from a cat's death by veterinarian negligence.

Blythe believes that case will guide the justices in this one. "The Scheele's mission is they want to achieve a change to American tort law. They're not trying to exact revenge against Lewis," he said.

Groff, the Scheeles and other animal rights advocates are optimistic the court will move towards change.

"Pets are not property," Martin Mersereau of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told ABCNews.com. "In the law's eyes they are, but things are changing. Animals are family members, animals are loved -- in many cases -- like children."

The Scheeles' case, he said, is helping to facilitate change in how the courts view killings of beloved animals. Of the average 500 animal cruelty complaints filed with the group each week, he said, the majority involve pets harmed -- often shot -- while outside unsupervised.

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