Hot Docs: Owner of cat shot by pellet gun can recover medical expenses

June 9, 2011

Pets not personal propertyA California appeals court has just ruled that the owner of a cat that had been shot by a pellet gun may recover damages for medical expenses incurred as a consequence of trying to save the cat’s life.

The facts of the case are relatively straightforward.

Plaintiff Kevin Kimes alleged that his pet cat Pumkin was shot with a pellet gun on October 28, 2005, while perched on a fence between his property and that of defendants, the Grosser family (Joseph, Kathleen, and their 18-year-old son Charles).

Kimes claims that the shot was fired from the Grossers’ backyard.

After Pumkin was shot, Kimes took the cat in for emergency surgery, which cost $6,000 and saved Pumkin’s life, but left Pumkin partially paralyzed.

Kimes incurred an additional $30,000 in expenses caring for Pumkin because of the injury.

For those familiar with the basic principles of animal law, this ruling is significant.

While it is not completely groundbreaking, the ruling further legitimizes the growing trend of breaking away from the traditional legal view of pets as nothing more than personal property.

The trial court’s ruling is more in line with the traditional view.

It granted the Grossers’ motions to exclude evidence of Kimes’s expenses caring his cat on the theory that their liability was limited to the amount by which the shooting reduced Pumkin’s fair market value.

Hot Doc: Kimes v. Grosser

Source: Westlaw News & Insight – National Litigation

So while it may sound disturbing to pet owners to hear legal arguments that regard their pet in the same manner as a desk lamp, such has been the prevailing legal view for most of American legal history.

And that’s not for lack of people trying to gain additional recognition for pets.

A “loss of companionship” theory has been a popular attempt, but the recognition of that legal theory has diminished significantly over time (even for claims for human losses of companionship).

Some form of an emotional distress theory has seen a little more success, but emotional distress claims by and large aren’t particularly strong suits.

In addition, they don’t bestow any higher status on pets than the traditional property view.

That’s why this ruling is so significant: it recognizes a pet as something more than property.

For example, let’s say that a neighbor shot a birdhouse that was sitting on your fence.

If the birdhouse was only worth $10, the law normally holds that spending more than that to repair it would be unreasonable, and you wouldn’t be able to recover more than that in a lawsuit (excluding punitive damages).

In this case, though, the appeals court held differently.

When a pet is injured, the court held that a plaintiff can recover for reasonable expenses incurred to cure it, because ruling otherwise would be encouraging the pet owner to let his or her pet suffer and die.

Because of this ruling, individuals injuring pets are potentially liable for tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses where they once could simply claim little or no liability (aside from any criminal or civil punitive sanctions).

So while the success of Kimes’s case may be uncertain (since he seems to be relying primarily on circumstantial evidence), the case has already made a significant contribution to pets and their owners.