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Sunday, November 16, 2003

$47k dog

I am usually skeptical about newspaper accounts of trial results.  But both the Austin American-Statesman and the Associated Press (the latter via the Houston Chronicle) report that an Austin judge awarded $47,000 to a woman whose dog escaped and was run over while in the custody of a Petco store.  Apparently a Petco employee lost control of the dog's leash while walking it outside and it ran away.  Its body was found a few days later on a nearby freeway.

It appears from the two stories that the $47,000 award was determined by a judge sitting as factfinder, rather than a jury.  Reportedly the award includes $10k each for "emotional anguish, loss of companionship and punitive damages."

Neither article names the judge.  I'm sorry that's the case, because that's a judge that needs to be defeated in the next election.

Folks, I love animals in general, and I'm a devoted dog owner.  If what the newspaper articles describe happened to my own dog, I'd be very sad indeed.  I'd bet dollars to donuts that the store employee in question was upset and remorseful — as a general rule, you don't work at a place like that unless you adore animals.

But absent a showing that, for example, this particular dog had a demonstrated track record of earning thousands of dollars per year in stud fees for its owner, $47k is a ridiculously inflated award.  And if all that happened was that a leash slipped out of an employee's hand, I'm quite skeptical as to whether that would amount even to "ordinary negligence" — much less the sort of "gross negligence" that could be a basis for punitive damages.  Bad, unfortunate, and sad things happen all the time, every day, that aren't the result of someone's "failure to use ordinary care"; this sounds to me like one of them.  Even when a dog-walker is using ordinary care, a leash can break or slip or be pulled from one's hand.  Taking the dog out without any leash at all — as a hypothetical for-instance — might qualify as the sort of "conscious indifference" and "recklessness" needed to support punitive damages, but there's no hint of that in the newspaper stories, and even then, $10k in exemplary damages would be excessive in relationship to any reasonable "actual damages."

If this was the result of a jury verdict, I'd make an educated guess that the pet owner's lawyer was substantially better than his or her opponent.  That would be the most likely explanation.  But in a bench trial, even a huge difference in the quality of counsel (and the resulting quality of evidence and argument) ought not produce this sort of result. 

Posted by Beldar at 04:54 PM in Law (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to $47k dog and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» Dog Suit from Antinome

Tracked on Nov 20, 2003 9:27:10 PM

» Dog gets off leash, punitive damages for pet store from Overlawyered

Tracked on Nov 21, 2003 8:58:23 AM