Rise in Veterinary Lawsuits: The Story of Poco and PJ

In the summer of 2012 I was fortunate enough to be a summer law clerk for Justice Wil Schroder on the Kentucky Supreme Court.  While there I remember having a discussion about two horses named Poco and PJ that were the subject of a 2001 opinion written by then Judge Schroder on the Court of Appeals.  Now that my wife and I own Riverview Animal Hospital and I represent several veterinarians, boarders, and animal clinics I am certain that anyone dealing with pets on a regular basis should know the story of Poco and PJ and how Kentucky courts value animals as more than property.

Poco (14y) and PJ (13y) were dearly loved horses and treated like "children" by their owner (sound familiar?).  However, the owner became ill with a variety of medical problems that made it difficult for her to care for the horses by herself.  The owner did not want to sell Poco and PJ and instead approached Taylor, a farm owner, willing to do a "free-lease" agreement and keep the horses.  Taylor also agreed the owner could visit when she wanted and would return the horses to the owner if she decided to no longer keep them.  

Within a few days of receiving the horses Taylor sold them for $1,000 to a known slaughter-buyer.  Within a week the owner requested to visit her horses and Taylor lied stating she had given them to an unknown man she met on a trail ride and later convinced a friend to join the ruse.  After sending the owner on a wild goose chase via directions to a fake farm in Indiana the owner discovered through a local humane organization the horses had been sold for slaughter.  Owner sued Taylor requesting, among other things, compensatory and punitive damages based upon emotional damages for the loss of her beloved pets.  Defendants argued that Kentucky only permits recovery of the property value of the horses.

The Kentucky court of appeals upheld an award of $126,000 stating the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress depends on the facts of the case as to the offender's conduct and not to the subject of said conduct (i.e. horses).  Intentional infliction of emotional distress is available so long as (1) the wrongdoer's conduct is intentional or reckless; (2) the conduct is outrageous against the accepted standards of decency and morality; (3) there is a connection between the conduct and the emotional distress; and (4) the emotional distress is severe.

As courts progress it is my opinion that the standards of intentional infliction of emotional distress will find its way into veterinary malpractice cases and other pet liability actions.  Additionally, Kentucky and other state courts have begun treating animals as humans and setting up trust funds for negligence awards or otherwise finding value beyond market value, like an heirloom.  In either event, courts are increasingly coming to terms that we value pets beyond a remedial market value--a fact that will attract more attorneys to pursue veterinary malpractice cases.

Attorney Anthony Mahan is the Managing Attorney at Mahan Law, co-owner of Riverview Animal Hospital, and member of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association.