Pet cruelty penalties: Consider damages for owners

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 8, 2014

UNDER the Animals and Birds Act, an act of animal cruelty can attract a fine of up to $10,000, a jail term of up to 12 months, or both. Many activists find this law to be far too lenient.

Last month, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said legislation would be introduced in Parliament this year that could raise the maximum fine to $50,000, jail of up to three years, or both, for repeat offenders.

For some activists, passing a new law is an opportune moment to have the close owner-pet relationship recognised and honoured. This could be done with a new provision for emotion-based damages in cases where cruelty leads to the injury or death of a pet.

Without such a provision, they argue, would-be perpetrators do not face sufficient deterrence.

How is the case for damages for the emotional distress that a pet owner suffers when his companion animal is hurt or killed justified?

The main argument is that pet owners are so devoted to their pets that many have taken to anthropomorphising their companion animals as their children.

Thus, many a pet owner regards his relationship with the animal as that of a parent with his or her child. That bond leads to a deep sense of loss when one's pet dies due to a malicious or negligent act by a third party.

In this respect, it is not unlike the wrongful death of a child, with the loss of companionship or sentimental value. Since the law should respond to changing social realities, a provision for emotion-based damages is thus worth careful consideration.

The main public policy concern with such an argument, though, is that there seems no sensible way to limit what class of companion animals - dogs, cats, hamsters, turtles, goldfish and so on - should be included.

This is because the capacity for people to form such bonds is not limited by species. People can even bond with farm animals such as sheep, horses or donkeys.

What if this leads to a deluge of litigation over all sorts of animals? There may even be more than one person in each case who comes forward to sue for emotional distress. How then would claims of a special bond be established?

Moreover, claims for emotional distress for injuries or the death of a pet could arise in all sorts of circumstances. It is not simply a matter of motor vehicle accidents or fights over pets between neighbours. There could also be allegations of veterinary malpractice.

Advocates counter that permitting emotion-based damages has the specific virtue of encouraging veterinarians to be more careful. When they practise good vet medicine, there will be few legal suits. So, there is no reason for veterinarian fees to rocket, they say.

However, most individuals who become veterinarians do so because they love and want to care for and protect animals. Heightened liability in the form of the threat of malpractice suits is not something that is likely to impel them to be better vets.

The same holds true for human health care. There is no empirical evidence that heightened liability leads to better medical care.

Moreover, raising the cost of vet services can have an impact on human health, too. This is because the control of zoonoses, diseases that spread from animals to humans, is a function of veterinarian services.

One could look to the US experience to see what lessons may be drawn from including emotional distress in the calculation of damages in statutes involving the wrongful death of a pet.

For well over a century, US courts have held that animals were merely property. Therefore, the only damages that may be sought for the death or injury of an animal was its fair market value. Most companion animals,however, have little market value.

Unhappy with the cold economic calculus inherent in the legal notion that animals are mere property, lawmakers in about a dozen states in the last decade have introduced Bills for emotion-based damages involving the wrongful deaths of pets at the hands of a third party.

These were initially well received, but public debate led to an awareness that frivolous litigation and rising vet fees could result.

In 2003, a lawmaker in Colorado introduced a Bill to permit emotion-based damages in pet litigation. But fears soon arose that vet fees might rise so much that less well-off pet owners may not even spay or neuter their pets. The legislator then withdrew the Bill.

This experience was repeated in Nevada in 2007.

It is not that the Americans love their pets less. By 2012, some 48 states out of all 50 had passed laws making animal abuse a felony. (Compared with a misdemeanour, a felony means the most serious level of offence.)

Yet, no state in even that particularly litigious nation has yet passed any law affording - and the courts in all states have also traditionally rejected - overly broad emotion-based damages, even in very meritorious pet suits.

In 2010, however, Tennessee became the first state to adopt a statute to permit some emotion-based damages related to "the loss of the reasonably expected society, companionship, love and affection of the pet". Damages were capped at US$5,000 (S$6,300). Since then, only Illinois has followed suit.

And in both states, the provision is strictly limited to certain categories of pet suits. In Illinois, only cases of aggravated cruelty, torture or bad faith are covered.

In Tennessee, the provision applies only to pets hurt or killed while under the owner's own control, with veterinarians and animal shelters exempted.

Allowing some emotion-based damages but capping the amount and restricting coverage to specific species of common companion animals for specified categories of pet suits such as aggravated cruelty, torture or bad faith looks like an acceptable compromise.

Having such a provision in the new law to be passed in the Singapore Parliament this year would indeed honour the special human-animal bond pet lovers have nowadays - and perhaps deter some intentional or negligent acts of animal cruelty.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 8, 2014

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