New Jersey Court Disallows Emotional Distress Damages for Seeing Pet Killed

Most dog owners would certainly feel a tremendous amount of “emotional distress” if they watched their dog suffer a horrible death, being mauled by another dog.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that no matter how much you love your dog, you cannot collect emotional distress damages for a dog.

Back in 2007, Joyce McDougall watched her Maltese-poodle mix dog, Angel, die as large dog mauled it. McDougall sued the owners of the big dog for both negligence and emotional distress.

The lower court that first heard the case agreed that the big dog’s owners were negligent, and it awarded McDougall $5,000 as compensation for the loss of her pet and to cover the cost of a new dog. But the court rejected her claim for damages for emotional distress.

An appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling. McDougall felt sufficiently strongly about the case that she appealed all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which affirmed both the lower court and the appellate court.

The New Jersey standard on emotional distress damages was established in 1980 in Portee v. Jaffee where the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that emotional distress damages are only available when a person witnesses the death of someone with whom he had a “close familial relationship or intimate, marital like bond.”

In the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, Justice Helen Hoens said that the court has no doubt that the plaintiff “was attached to her dog and that she had strong emotional ties to it.” However, the court decided that Portee v. Jaffee needs to be applied narrowly: the court “cannot permit recovery for watching the death of a non-human.”

Different states have widely varying laws regarding recovering damages for the death or injury of pets. Some states only allow for the recovery of the “market value” of the animal. New Jersey goes a little bit further than that – it is among the states that will allow pet owners to recover “repair costs” (i.e., vet bills) that are well in excess of the animal’s “market value.” Other states, such as Colorado, go further. In a recent Colorado case, a dog owner was awarded $65,000 for emotional distress related to the death of her pet.

If your family pet has been killed or injured as a result of someone else’s negligence, contact an attorney at the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Hasson, P.C. for assistance.