In part, it’s, the human-versus-animal, possession-versus- humankind argument.
New Jersey resident Joyce McDougall witnessed her cute Maltese-poodle’s violent death at the hands (paws?) of another dog in Morris Plains. She filed suit for the cost of a replacement dog, and for emotional distress.
A trial court agreed that she should receive more than the cost to replace her pet and issued her $5,000. But being compensated for emotional distress was reserved for people who witness the violent death of a close family member, they said, based on the 1980 Portee v. Jaffee doctrine. The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously upheld that decision this week.
In a much-needed reality check, Justice Helen Hoens observed that the vast majority of states do not allow owners to sue for emotional distress when their animals are killed. And beyond that, the Courts have been very limited in what they consider to be a “close family member” under this doctrine. The New Jersey Law Journal notes that an appellate court in the 1980s said it did not apply to a woman who saw her 5-year-old neighbor, with whom she was very close, mauled to death by a circus animal (Eyrich ex rel. Eyrich v. Dam, 193 N.J. Super. 244).
“It would make little sense, we think, to permit [the] plaintiff to recover for her emotional distress over the loss of her dog when she would be precluded from any such recovery if she instead had the misfortune of watching a neighbor’s child, whom she regarded as her own, torn apart by a wild animal,” Hoens said.
And if the Court were to expand Portee to include animals, it would open the floodgates for New Jerseyans to sue for emotional distress after watching heirlooms or other property destroyed, the Justices reasoned. As if New Jersey needs any help maintaining its status as a Judicial Hellhole…