By: Wes Jackson
Earlier this month, the Georgia Supreme Court clarified the appropriate measure of damages for family pets and other animals that are killed or injured due to a defendant’s negligence. Under the Court’s ruling in Barking Hound Village, LLC v. Monyak, S15G1184, ---S.E.2d--- (Ga. June 6, 2016), a negligently injured or killed animal’s value is determined by the animal’s fair market value at the time of the loss plus interest and, in addition, any medical and other expenses reasonably incurred in treating the animal. The Court also held that while the sentimental value of the dog to the owners was not an appropriate measure of the dog’s value, certain non-economic factors, such as the dog’s breed, age, training, temperament, and use, were nevertheless admissible.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate Georgia’s top court’s holding will be with an example involving the state’s top dog: Uga, the iconic English bulldog who proudly serves as the University of Georgia’s mascot. If Uga prematurely passed away due to a tortfeasor’s negligence, what factors could a jury consider in determining his value? The jury could not consider Uga’s sentimental worth to his owners or the millions of Georgians who comprise the Bulldog Nation—the Supreme Court’s acknowledgement that “the unique human-animal bond, while cherished, is beyond legal measure,” likely applies to Uga’s immeasurable sentimental value as well. However, that inadmissible sentimental value would likely influence other factors that a jury could consider. For example, Uga’s fair market value is unlike any other dog’s in the state, in that his progeny will likely fetch top-dollar in the market for pure-bred English Bulldogs. Additionally, Uga’s popularity may command a high fee for his presence at Georgia sporting events and related activities. Finally, in light of Uga’s symbolic importance in the state and income-generating potential, a jury would likely find reasonable even the most exorbitant veterinary fees incurred in attempting to cure his hypothetical injury or ailment.
Thus, the Georgia Supreme Court’s holding in Barking Hound Village may preclude an animal’s valuation based solely on its sentimental value to its owner, but it does not shut out non-economic factors completely. The Court’s holding will likely impact the types of evidence that will be submitted to juries in a variety of future cases, including those concerning car accidents, insurance claims, veterinary malpractice, and, as in Barking Dog Village, kennels and other pet-service providers. While other dogs may not be as valuable as Uga, the Court’s calculus leaves plenty of room for dog owners to claim the full value of their lost animals.