- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

NORTHFIELD, Vt. (AP) — When Denis and Sarah Scheele’s dog was fatally shot after wandering onto a man’s property, they sued — and not just for damages. The couple also wanted compensation for their emotional distress and loss of companionship.

Their case is one of a growing number across the country that ask courts to recognize what dog owners already do: that man’s best friend is worth more than its retail price.

“When you lose something like that, the loss is immeasurable,” said Mrs. Scheele, 47. “You can’t just go to a pet store and buy another animal. It doesn’t replace the family member that was lost.”

Unable to have children, the Scheeles got dogs instead. They fed them human food, brushed their teeth and put coats on them when it rained.

The Scheeles say the death of Shadow, a shepherd-chow-spaniel mix they called their “little boy,” entitles them to damages beyond the direct expenses typically awarded in such cases.

Historically, courts have allowed people suing over the death of an animal to collect such expenses as its purchase price and veterinary bills.

“Courts look at market value, and I don’t think that reflects society’s values,” said the couple’s attorney, Heidi Groff.

The Scheeles’ case began in July 2003, when they drove from their home in Annapolis to Vermont to watch Mr. Scheele’s aunt and uncle renew their wedding vows. They planned to leave the dogs in their truck during the service.

They got to the church early, so they let the dogs loose, a violation of the leash law in Northfield, which is 10 miles south of Montpelier.

The dogs wandered into Lewis Dustin’s yard. Mr. Dustin, 74, who had been squirrel hunting that day, had a combination BB and pellet gun at the ready.

The Scheeles said Shadow didn’t menace Mr. Dustin. But Mr. Dustin fired a pellet at Shadow in hopes of scaring him off.

Instead, the shot penetrated the dog’s chest and severed his aorta. Shadow died en route to a veterinarian’s office.

Mr. Dustin later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty. He was given a year of probation and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay $4,000 in restitution.

A judge ruled in the Scheeles’ civil suit that there is no provision in Vermont law that would allow them to recover damages for the loss of Shadow’s companionship or for emotional distress.

The couple plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Though the lawyers acknowledge it’s a novel legal theory, noting that people can’t sue for loss of companionship in the deaths of best friends or domestic partners, they want an exception for four-legged friends.

In recent years, trial courts in Florida, New York, Illinois, California, Oregon and Washington have carved out a category for pets that is somewhere between property and people.

An appeals court in Washington state last May created a new tort called “malicious injury to a pet,” which allows someone to collect emotional distress damages. The case involved three teenagers who doused a cat with gasoline and lit it on fire.

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