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‘Paw Law’ makes pets truly part of the family

PETS HAVE always been considered to be part of the family, but now, thanks to an increasing number of court rulings in the USA, they may attain this status in legal statutes.

One case concerns Missy, a mongrel owned by Jim and Kris Noyes. The couple paid just $100 (£55) when they adopted her from an animal shelter in the Chicago suburbs.

Three years on, the Noyes are seeking damages of more than $50,000 (£27,400) after a series of allegedly botched operations that led to the dog suffering intense pain and having to have a leg amputated.

The couple have been encouraged by a wave of so-called paw law decisions in which American judges have relaxed the strict legal definition of animals being simply property or "chattels".

Mr Noyes speaks about his eight-year-old dog as though she is a daughter. That, say pet owners - or guardians, as they are now legally known in several United States cities - is the point.

Courts are finally recognising what animal-lovers have long believed – that dogs and cats – or indeed other pet animals - are part of the family and their worth goes far beyond what they cost.

Judges in Kentucky and California are awarding damages that are well above the animal's market value. Mr Noyes, 41, an asset fund manager, said: "It caused us great anguish to see Missy suffering so much, knowing that it should not have happened. This case is about right and wrong and about accountability. Vets should be accountable for their actions in the same way as other professionals."

Meanwhile in Florida, Adam Riff is suing a vet for alleged negligence after his Collie Lucky, died following dental surgery. Mr Riff was upset to hear an opposing lawyer tell a judge that Lucky "had depreciated" in the eight years since Riff had bought him for $300.

"He spoke about his depreciating as if he was a car," said Mr Riff, 26, a marketing salesman. "I loved Lucky like he was my son, my little boy."

The biggest damages award so far for veterinary malpractice is $39,000 granted to Marc Bluestone by a jury in Orange County, California, last year. His sandy-haired dog, Shane - bought for $100 at a local shelter - died of liver failure following a misdiagnosis and $21,000 worth of treatment.

Even though the jury decided that Shane's market value was just $10, it awarded $30,000 for her "unique value" to Mr Bluestone and $9,000 to cover vets' bills. The vet is appealing against this ruling.

The Noyes are seeking an unspecified sum for non-economic damages. Missy can barely walk and the family's lawyer, Amy Breyer, is highlighting the "loss of enjoyment" for her clients.
The boom in malpractice suits has led to fears that the overall cost of owning a pet will soar. Vets believe that they will be hit by soaring insurance premiums, which they will have to pass on to clients. Jim Wilson, a veterinary legal expert from Pennsylvania, said: "Most vets still think of animals as nothing more than property when society's moving to anthropomorphise them. Vets are the original animal welfarists but these signs mean life as a vet will never be the same again."

Ms Breyer is one of a new breed of lawyers specialising in paw law, which also covers cruelty issues and post-divorce custody battles. In November 2003 there were 64 American attorneys or legal firms that specialised in animal law - now there are 227. Ms Breyer said: "Courts are looking at the compensation value of companion animals that have no useful function. In at least one case, a judge has ruled that animals increase in value with age, like a fine wine."

Needless to say, he Veterinary profession are worried at this trend. The American Veterinary Medical Association fears that its members will end up spending as much time and money as doctors fighting negligence suits. AVMA President, Dr Bonnie Beaver, said: "This is going to put up the cost of caring for animals and make owning pets too expensive for many people." Americans already spend $17 billion a year on their pets.

But Carolyn Matlack, a lawyer who runs a legal firm called Animal Legal Report Services, is seeking compromise.

She recommends that pets are treated as a higher form of property (termed ‘sentient property’) and recognised as companions, but given no individual legal rights. "Vets cannot have their cake and eat it," she said. "They cannot live off the bond that we have with our animals and not be held accountable.

"But nor do we want to see them facing the same sort of problems as the medical industry where the sky's the limit for awards."

Whether the trend could cross the Atlantic to the UK remains to be seen, but American law and British law share several common definitions in various legal areas, property law being one of them. And as Britain becomes an increasingly US-style litigious society, the day of the ambulance chasing animal lawyer may not be far off.