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Animal Control Law

No emotional damages for witnessing injury to a dog - Rabideau v. City of Racine, 243 Wis.2d 486, 627 N.W.2d 795 (Wi 2001)

This case raises the interesting question of whether plaintiffs in states that only allow third party emotional damages for injuries to close relatives should be able to recover emotional damages for injuries to their pets.  As the court makes clear, this is not an animal rights case - the issue is not the injury to the pet but its effect on the owner.  Interestingly, the court is at pains to explain that it ruling is not meant to devalue the relationship between plaintiff and her "companion animal":

"At the outset, we note that we are uncomfortable with the law's cold characterization of a dog, such as Dakota, as mere "property." Labeling a dog "property" fails to describe the value human beings place upon the companionship that they enjoy with a dog. A companion dog is not a fungible item, equivalent to other items of personal property. A companion dog is not a living room sofa or dining room furniture. This term inadequately and inaccurately describes the relationship between a human and a dog. ... Nevertheless, the law categorizes the dog as personal property despite the long relationship between dogs and humans. To the extent this opinion uses the term "property" in describing how humans value the dog they live with, it is done only as a means of applying established legal doctrine to the facts of this case."

In this case, the plaintiff's dog entered defendant's yard and, from defendant's perspective, attacked his dog, snarled at his wife and child and generally threatened to do harm.  Unluckily for plaintiff's decedent, defendant was a police officer who was carrying his service weapon.  He fired a warning shot, and when that did not scare away the dog, he shot the dog, who died a couple of days later.  From plaintiff's perspective, her dog was just sniffing the other dog and was heading home when defendant intentionally shot the dog to upset her.

Plaintiff claimed against the city and officer for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and for the value of the dog.  This was brought in small claims court and it is not clear how the case came before the appeals courts.  The court found no evidence of intent to inflict distress on the plaintiff and dismissed that claim with limited discussion.  The court discussed the policy behind limiting recovery for emotional harm for witnessing injuries to third parties in detail, finding that its ruling was constrained by the traditional problem that the potential reach of such damages can be unbounded.  The court found that the case law restricted such injuries to persons witnessing severe injuries to, or the death of, spouses, parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, or siblings.  As the court noted, if plaintiff had witnessed the death of her best (human) friend, she would have no recovery, implying, but not saying, that it was not going change the rule for animals before it was changed for people.  The court did note that at least one state would allow plaintiff's recovery:

"At least one other court has adopted a different approach. Hawaii permits recovery for mental distress occurring as a result of the negligent destruction of property. Campbell, 632 P.2d at 1071 (citing Rodrigues v. State, 472 P.2d 509 (Haw. 1970)). Based upon this principle of Hawaiian tort law, in Campbell the Hawaii Supreme Court allowed recovery for serious mental distress resulting when the plaintiffs' dog died of heat prostration after being loaded into an unventillated van on a hot afternoon, and the van was exposed directly to the sun."

The court did find that plaintiff had stated a potential cause of action under what can only be termed the "self-defense" from dogs law, which establishes the conditions under which a dog can be killed without liability.  If the dog was on defendant's property and was menancing the defendant, then he was authorized to shoot the dog, but this would require a factual determination.  (The statute seems to set a high standard for shooting dog than some states use for shooting people.)  Since plaintiff claimed and him and the city, and the court is considering this action as against the City, it is very troubling that the court does not address qualified immunity and whether defendant was acting in his official capacity.  If so, he was not covered by the statute and should have been entitled to immunity for his decision to shoot the dog.

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