Tort Claim Is Actionable As Plaintiff May Recover Damages for Reasonable Treatment of Pet Even If Animal Has No Market Value

Posted in: Medical Damages, Punitive Damages, Tort Liability by Steven Vartabedian on

Recently, the issue of awardability of claimed medical damages against tortfeasors has been a hot appellate topic. The California Supreme Court currently has under submission the case of Howell v. Hamilton Meats concerning medical expenses incurred yet paid to the provider in a lesser sum due to downwardly negotiated collateral medical insurance benefits. (See March 10 blog.) When it comes to future medical expenses, the question arises as to whether the expense is too speculative. (See March 31 blog and Behr v. Redmond.) These cases, of course, deal with human medical expenses. Today I will write about animal medical expense (in particular those incurred regarding a wrongfully injured pet).

In Kimes v. Grosser (filed May 31, 2011) 2011 DJDAR 7866), plaintiff’s cat Pumkin was shot with a pellet gun allegedly fired by one of the defendants, who were neighbors. Emergency surgery at a cost of $6,000 saved Pumkin’s life and an additional $30,000 was spent caring for Pumkin’s partially paralyzed condition. Plaintiff sued for these medical costs and further claimed punitive damages. Defendants succeeded on a motion in limine in the trial court to exclude any evidence of plaintiff’s expenses because Pumkin was “an adopted stray of very low economic value.” With the granting of this motion, plaintiff could not proceed resulting in judgment of dismissal.

The Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division One, disagreed with the trial court, reversing the judgment and holding the pet owner can recover the costs of care of the pet attributable to the injury if the costs are found to be reasonable and necessary, and punitive damages if proven. While pets are considered property of their owners, the jury instruction on injury to personal property (CACI NO. 3903J) does not apply here as was argued by defendants. That capsulation of law suggests that an owner can only recover the lesser of the diminution in market value of the property and the reasonable costs of repair. Nor is this a case of the plaintiff trying to recover due to the sentimental or emotional value of the pet (in contrast to McMahon v. Craig (2009) 176 Cal.App.4th 1502). Under California Civil Code section 3355, one is entitled to value property based upon its unique economic value.
As the appellate court puts it, “[P]laintiff is not plucking a number out of the air for the sentimental value of damaged property; he seeks to present evidence of costs incurred for Pumkin’s care and treatment by virtue of the shooting–a rational way of demonstrating a measure of damages apart from the cat’s market value.” Evidence Code section 823 is cited as a guidepost: where there is no relevant, comparable market value, the value (or maximum expense allowed here) may be determined by any method of valuation that is just and equitable.

The Court concludes that under Civil Code section 3333 plaintiff may present evidence of the bills incurred to save the cat’s life and is entitled to recover the reasonable and necessary costs caused by someone who wrongfully injured the cat; Plaintiff is entitled to have a jury decide this and, as well, whether punitive damages should be awarded (under Civil Code section 3340) on a showing of wilfullness.

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