We all share this nightmare: somehow, our beloved dog gets out of the house, runs into the street…and is tragically hit by a car. Now imagine that awful scenario being the result of someone else’s negligence. That’s what happened to a Colorado family. Last summer, Robin Lohre’s dog Ruthie was killed after being hit by a car. Ruthie escaped the family’s home while a cleaning service was working in the home and Robin had left to run an errand. To make matters worse, the cleaning service employee knew it happened, found the dog and brought her inside, laid her underneath the dining table, and left—without ever calling Robin or a vet, or even leaving a note.
Robin and her seven-year-old daughter Imogene were devastated by the loss of Ruthie.
Lohre sued Posh Maids, the cleaning service, for negligence and emotional distress. Colorado, like so many other states, considers pets to be property. Usually, when someone negligently damages your property—say, your car—you can sue only for the replacement cost. However, in recent years, attorneys across the country have been making inroads, expanding the animal law specialty and pushing the envelope with regard to how our legal system looks at pets. When someone suffers a loss like the Lohre’s, suits for emotional distress seek to address the true wrong suffered—the loss of the human-canine bond and companionship—even if the state’s statutes don’t specifically provide for those damages.
In Lohre’s case, the defendant never responded to the lawsuit, so a default judgment for the full claim of $65,000 plus interest was entered. While on the surface this is a great financial result for the Lohre and her attorney, it’s too soon to celebrate. First, since the case didn’t go to trial and a judge didn’t render a decision, the case doesn’t provide the sort of legal precedent that others later can use for their own cases. Second, we lawyers have a saying: judgments are easy to get but hard to collect. Given that the defendant was a small business owner who didn’t hire an attorney to respond to the suit, my guess is that she won’t pay, and may even file bankruptcy to avoid payment.
Still, I see the case as a victory for this most basic reason: it publicizes the idea that our pets are more than simple property. They are our invaluable companions, and the law should treat them as such. The case is also a heads up to all businesses that send employees into peoples’ homes to provide a service: be as mindful of the family pet as you would a human child.