That Dog Costs How Much?

In 2007 John Irwin picked up his cane and carefully made his way outside with Peppermint, his small Bichon Frise dog. While still in their yard, Mr. Irwin and Peppermint were attacked by an unleashed German Shepherd. The attack knocked Irwin to the ground and left him unable to get up on his own. The German Shepherd held Peppermint by the neck while shaking him. Peppermint was left with profuse bleeding and wounds to the head, neck, abdomen and chest. The Bichon underwent a successful emergency surgery that cost Mr. Irwin more than $8,000.

Massachusetts law imposes strict liability for damage caused by dogs. The owner of the German Shepherd would have to pay Mr. Irwin, but how much? The German Shepherd’s owners claimed that “it is unreasonable to spend more to treat a dog than it would cost to replace it.” They wanted to only pay Irwin the cost of a new dog. This debate reached the Massachusetts Appeals Court in the case of Irwin v. Degtiarov, No. 13-P-450, slip op. (Apr. 25, 2014).

The court held that under G.L. c. 140, § 155, reasonable veterinary costs can be recovered for damage caused by dogs even if the costs exceed the market value or replacement cost of an animal injured by a dog. Under this rule, the court did allow Irwin to recover for Peppermint’s surgery, even though the Peppermint’s medical bills far exceeded the dog’s fair market or replacement value. If it is “reasonable in the circumstances presented to incur the veterinary costs at the time they are undertaken, then the owner of the injured animal may recover them.” Irwin. The factors considered by the court to assess the “reasonableness” of treatment include the owners’ emotional attachment to the animal and whether the animal is part of a household.

Despite many pet owners’ feeling that their pets are part of their family, Massachusetts continues the old common law rule that pets are property. Owners cannot receive compensation for their animals’ pain and suffering, nor for their own loss of enjoyment of their animals. Id.; Krasnecky v. Meffen, 56 Mass.App.Ct. 418, 423 (2002).

Pets can be a source of companionship and joy, but they can also be a source of sadness and even liability. The attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. understand how Massachusetts law is evolving to protect people and their pets. If you have questions about dog bites or other pet and animal issues, call today.

The purpose of this article is to inform our clients of developments in the law and to provide information of general interest. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or to assume a client relationship. The content of this article could be considered advertising under the rules of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Copyright © 2012 Hutchins Law, P.C. All Rights Reserved.