DennisBeaverMay 15, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Allstate Insurance television commercials command attention and admiration for their often touching themes. At the conclusion of every spot, we hear the reassuring voice of actor Dennis Hasbert telling us, as the company’s website states, that Allstate is “taking a strong stand for consumers.”

Are they as caring as their commercials imply? What is their “stand” for the people whose lives they touch, and have the power to help beyond doing the bare minimum?

After reading today’s story, I would like to hear from readers with opinions on what Allstate should do – how they should evaluate the following case. Please contact me here.

6 a.m. June 20, 2009

June 20, 2009 was a typical morning in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. At 6 am the temperature for most Valley cities was about 64 degrees and there was a light breeze.

Carol had her front and back doors open, “to let the cool breeze flow through my house. Molly, my indoor cat, was lying on a rug inside the front door.”

While reading her morning newspaper at the kitchen table, Molly – all 15 pounds of this blue-eyed Birman who kids just adored – was at her usual station, guarding the front door. “It was so calm, everything was just right in that world of ours; Molly was my friend, my companion,” Carol told me. But in a moment, that world would be irrevocably altered.

“I heard a muffled snarling, and looked up to see two pit bulls carrying Molly away and went screaming after them, but they took her behind a palm tree. I blasted them with a water hose and they ran, but in those 30 seconds they crushed my cat. Later that day, the vet had to euthanize her.”

About 90 minutes after the incident, Animal control and police caught the two unlicensed dogs and informed Carol that, “The day before, a neighbor’s cat – one street away – was killed inside the family’s garage at 6 am. There is a high probability it was the same dogs.”

Owners land in dog court

On June 28, animal control officers conducted a “Yard Check,” to determine if the owner’s fencing was secure. It was not, which is why these two dangerous pit bulls got out. Instructions were given to re-enforce the fence so that the dogs would not escape.

A dangerous dog hearing was held shortly thereafter as California law requires. The hearing officer reluctantly concluded that, “while there was indeed a high probability the same dogs were involved in the killing of both cats – and possibly a third – evidence was insufficient for the county to euthanize the dogs at this time. But if these dogs again hurt other animals or people, they were subject to being put down.”

Pets are a different kind of property

Last year, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reported that only 2.1 percent of pet owners consider their animals to be “property,” while the remaining 97.9 percent describe them as “family members” or “companions.”

If Molly were a person, her life would have had enormous monetary value. Witnessing severe injury or the death of a loved one can be the basis of a claim for Emotional Distress. But Molly was a cat, and California Civil Code Section 665 tells us that a domestic animal, such as a cat or dog, is considered property, the damages limited to “replacement cost.”

“Some courts in the our country understand that, while an animal is property, this is a different kind of property, than, for example, a toaster or a car?” comments Joyce Tischler, founder and general counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, based in California’s beautiful Sonoma County.

“In Florida, when you can show that an act is intentional, courts have been willing to allow for recovery of emotional distress. Other states have concluded that the value of a companion animal is not limited by its replacement cost.”

Carol suffered health problems

Carol’s vet bill was $100, but the loss of Molly under these horrifying conditions caused her real physical and emotional harm requiring medication for extremely high blood pressure, continued medical treatment for anxiety and something far worse.

As she explained, “I am now afraid of these dogs coming back to our home and attacking my son’s dog. These incidents make you a bit paranoid, all because of people who could have prevented this.”

Allstate insures the owners who were completely irresponsible in allowing their dogs to get out. So, what’s a fair figure? The cost of a replacement cat – which is what the law requires at a minimum – or more? Should Carol receive compensation for the obvious mental distress she suffered. What should Allstate’s “stand” be on doing the right thing?

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.