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Canine Custody Battle Focuses On Pet’s “Value”

3 Comments Posted by Alyssa Noonan in Pet Law, Pet Trends on Thursday, March 12th, 2009.

You and your clients know that pets occupy an increasingly important place in the family, but in the legal realm, lawyers and judges view pets more like a car or refrigerator than a family member. Last year’s settlement for the 2007 Menu Foods pet food recall compensated pet owners for everything from medical treatment and burial expenses but offered nothing in the way of remuneration for pet owners’ pain and suffering. That attitude may be changing, though, as a New Jersey state appeals court recently ruled that a pet’s “special subjective value” should be taken into account when deciding on pet custody battles.

From the New Jersey Star-Ledger:

The three-judge panel ruled that money was insufficient compensation for a woman whose former fiance kept their dog after the breakup of their relationship, despite an oral agreement that she would keep the pet.

The canine in question here is Dexter, a seven-year-old pug. When Doreen Houseman and her former fiance, Eric Dare, broke up in 2006, they had an oral agreement that Houseman would retain custody of Dexter. Houseman went on vacation in February 2007 and asked Dare to watch Dexter. But when Houseman returned from her trip, Dare refused to give the dog back.

Houseman took Dare to court and eventually won $1,500 – the price the couple paid for Dexter back in 2003. But the court would not grant Houseman custody of the dog.

Houseman appealed the decision and found the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Lawyers in Defense of Animalsamong her allies. The appeals court disagreed with the earlier ruling and ruled that a pet has “special subjective value” that can’t be replaced with money alone, much like “a family heirloom or valued work of art.” The ruling still places pets on equal footing with all those precious tchotchkes Aunt Mildred gave you, but it at least acknowledges that pets and their people are extremely important to one another.

3 Comments for Canine Custody Battle Focuses On Pet’s “Value”

Heatherleigh | March 13, 2009 at 9:20 am

It is about time people started to recognize the fact that dogs are not just a belonging. They are important members of our families and often surrogate children! We invest our time, money and love in these four legged friends!

Gina Calogero | March 15, 2009 at 1:24 pm

As the attorney for Doreen Houseman, I can tell you that my client is thrilled with the decision, but the battle is not done yet. Her ex-fiance, who lives in the same town, has not let her see Dexter for two years. The case has been sent back to the trial judge for further proceedings regarding the oral agreement between the parties at the time of separation.

Animal lawyers throughout New Jersey are also pleased with the progressive decision recognizing the affection and attachment between humans and their companion animals. In Pennsylvania and Florida, courts declined to enforce a visitation agreement over “personal property.” We all know that our companion animals are members of our family, not just furniture – thank goodness the New Jersey courts agree!

Comment by mark | March 27, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Unfortunately, in New Hampshire, I think the value of a pet is determined by the price it costs to replace. It is pretty much similar to livestock laws.

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