July 12, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
In a recent article, we told you about Carol, her cat, Molly, and irresponsible neighbors who allowed their pit bulls to get out of a backyard enclosure.
With the doors open to let the morning breeze sweep through the house, in rushed the two pit bulls, crushing Molly with their powerful jaws.
“My entire world changed that instant,” the retired Wells Fargo banker told me, months later, still tearful when the event was discussed. She suffered seriously high blood pressure episodes, and required medication due to the anxiety over the same thing happening to other family pets.
“Can you imagine what it felt like to allow the vet put her to sleep? You are turning off life support for a family member.”
“For people who truly love dogs and cats, they are not just objects with a price tag. They become part of your family,” she maintains.
Millions of Americans agree.
In that story, we asked readers to tell us how an insurance company should look at Carol’s situation. Even though California law has always stated the value of a pet is replacement cost, is that fair or right today? In many other states and cities, courts go well beyond that limitation.
The bottom line is that while California law does not require an insurance company to pay compensation for emotional distress in these situations, nothing prevents them from doing so, either.
Allstate insures the owner of these killer dogs. Their advertising campaign paints themselves as “taking a stand for consumers.”
So, what was their “stand” on Carol’s claim? Did they look at this horrible incident and say, “We can do more than just offer the lady some money to buy another cat and pay for a vet bill? Our insured was directly responsible for causing her tremendous grief, and if the purpose of insurance is to fairly compensate for injury and loss, we should do that.”
On Sept. 8, 2009, an attorney retained by Allstate wrote Carol: “While I certainly sympathize with your loss, unfortunately the law in the State of California prohibits recovery of damages for emotional distress due to the loss of a pet.”
The letter went on to cite McMahon vs. Craig, where a California Appellate Court acknowledged that pet owners are often so attached to their family pets that they are considered members of the family, and yet said flat-out no to a claim of emotional distress due to the death of a family pet. In the underlying case, a veterinarian negligently cared for a pet and lied about it.
The court in so many words stated that to allow such claims would be a “burden” for the courts.
Allstate offered Carol $149 for the value of her cat and $99 for the vet bill. They could easily have offered more.
“At times, insurance companies will go beyond what they are required to pay,” I was told by Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California.
But obviously not Allstate, in Carol’s case.
Only two of the many readers who responded agreed with Allstate’s puny offer, and one of them was an Allstate agent! He wrote, “If you allow one case to be covered, this would set precedent for more frivolous lawsuits – dogs killing dogs, dogs killing cats…”
“Frivolous?” Not so fast. “It’s amazing how much more responsible some people become when they can be hit hard in the pocketbook. If pet owners and their insurance carriers faced the real cost of owning a dangerous dog, you would find better fences and fewer pit bulls,” wrote Tom of Hanford.
Advice from www.dogbitelaw.com
Specializing in dog bite cases, attorney Kenneth Phillips of Beverly Hills has highly encouraging news for Carol and others in her situation:
“There are many jurisdictions all over America which say the owner of the dog is liable for all provable losses. Beverly Hills is one.”
“There is a movement sweeping across the country where courts are no longer observing those old restrictions. Many California judges have awarded damages for all the care which the pet required, without a cap.”
“Pit bulls have been found to be like a deadly weapon, and when running around loose, causing injury or death, small claims court judges are awarding very large judgments, despite old statutes.”
“Carol should to go small claims court and sue the owner. Judges there are allowed to do what is fair, and are not required to follow the law. She should ask for the full amount of her damages, medical bills and all other monetary damages which arise out of that incident.”
That’s the kind of advice a Beaver can sink his teeth into.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.