Dead pets, and really big lawsuits
Weighing the value of animal friendship in court
JONATHON GATEHOUSE | Apr 9, 2007 |
This year, North Americans will spend close to $50 billion on their pets.(That's approximately double the combined foreign aid budgets of Canada and the United States.)There has never been a society that devoted more time and money to keeping, pampering, and generally anthropomorphizing its animals. But in one key area, we have remained brutally unsentimental. In the eyes of the law, the lives of Fluffy and Fido are dirt cheap. In almost every jurisdiction in North America, pets are property, and like a piece of furniture, worth pretty much what you paid for them, less depreciation. The courts might up the amount for a show dog or a racehorse, but anyone seeking compensation for emotional distress and loss of companionship has generally found that life is more like Old Yeller than Benji.
That could be about to change, however. The deaths of at least 14 cats and dogs from what appears to be tainted pet food has spurred more than a half-dozen class-action lawsuits against Streetsville, Ont.'s Menu Foods Inc. And along with money for vet bills, and the cost of the 60 million tins of recalled food, many are seeking added damages for owners' pain and suffering. "People are going out of their minds," says Joel Rochon, Jr., a Toronto lawyer who has filed suit in Ontario. Hundreds have inquired about joining his $60-million class, filed in the name of an 18-year-old whose kitten, Daisy, is at death's door. "I even got an email from a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan about his family's tribulations back home," says Rochon.
Courts across North America already factor in the value of companionship in many different types of human relationships. Now the time might be ripe for similar calculations about animal friendship, says Wendy Adams, a McGill University law professor. "There's a strong argument," she says. "You're not going to be laughed out of court."
Menu Foods Inc., which is promising to compensate affected pet owners for their vet bills, declined all comment on the lawsuits.
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