Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pet Lawsuits and "Emotional Damages"

The Texas Supreme Court just overturned a lower court ruling that allowed a family to collect monetary damages for the loss of their dog, under the heading of "loss of companionship." Texas law, it seems, allows plaintiffs to collect monetary damage for the loss of a family heirloom, "such as a wedding veil, pistol, jewelry, handmade bedspreads and other items going back several generations." But while a stuffed dog from the cattle drive days might qualify under this law, the court held that a living dog does not. George Will:
The court performed something like a cost-benefit analysis to answer the Medlens’ perplexity that they could seek sentimental damages if a taxidermied Avery, rather than a living, panting Avery, had been negligently destroyed. The court noted that the American Kennel Club, in a friend of the court brief joined by the Cat Fanciers’ Association and other pet-welfare groups, warned against the unintended consequences of allowing “sentiment-based damages” for injured or destroyed dogs. They fear that “pet litigation will become a cottage industry,” bringing the danger of increased liability to veterinarians, shelter and kennel workers and even dog-sitters. . . .

 “To his dog,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” It would, however, be expensive, with myriad social costs, to create a novel tort action for loss of pet companionship. So Texas’s highest court has held that no Texas dog, however beloved, will be given an exalted status akin to that of an heirloom pistol and thereby becoming the subject of imprecise, arbitrary and potentially unlimited tort litigation.
One problem I can immediately see with pet litigation is that dogs don't feel the same pains we do. I used to own a dog that loved to kill rats, which regularly left her with a torn, bleeding face that bothered her not in the slightest. We have a neighbor whose dog was once involved in a scary, violent tussle with our dog, and now she picks it up and glares at us whenever she walks by our house, proclaiming that Freckles is petrified; Freckles, however, perks up and wags her tail when she sees our dog. The thought of being sued by Freckles' owner for the pain of seeing her dog attacked by mine gives me pause.

More broadly, I have to say that I do not understand the whole business of paying people money to make up for "pain and suffering." What is the underlying theory here? That money makes people feel good, and therefore it can serve as a balm for any sort of emotional distress? But how much pain is worth how much money, and how do we know?

Can any amount of money make up for the loss of a child? If not, why award $2 million?

Americans are so used to this idea that most don't know the American system is nearly unique in the world. Nowhere else can people become rich because a sympathetic jury decided to award them a pile of cash. Nowhere else do tort lawyers regularly become millionaires. And this is why, although most things are more expensive in Europe, liability insurance is really, really cheap.

I have a sense that we award "pain and suffering" damages as a way to somehow make up for the harshness of our mass society. We know that people are often lonely, sorrowful, oppressed by burdens, and struggling to make ends meet, so we feel for them when they lose one of the few people or things that give their lives meaning, and we try to ease their pain with the only tool that is readily available in our world: cash.

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