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Injuries to Pets – Accountability for Intentional Harm to Animals

by Sara B. Morgan, Esq.

The matter of Kimes v. Grosser deals with a cat owner’s ability to sue for vet bills to keep his cat, Pumkin, alive after being shot by a neighbor. Kimes v. Grosser (2011) 195 Cal. App. 4th 1556. The Plaintiff, Kevin Kimes, adopted a stray cat, who he named Pumkin. While perched on a fence along Kimes’s property, Pumkin was shot with a pellet gun by a neighbor, the defendant in the case. Mr. Kimes spent $6,000 on emergency surgery to save Pumkin’s life, and an additional $30,000 to care for Pumkin thereafter. Mr. Kimes sued his neighbor to recover these costs, and for punitive damages. The Court held that Mr. Kimes could recover the costs of Pumkin’s care resulting from the injury if the costs were found to be reasonable and necessary, and punitive damages if the injury is found to be intentional.

The Court’s holding, however, was quite limited, establishing only that a plaintiff may present evidence of the bills incurred to save the cat’s life. It does not establish that the vet bills are necessarily recoverable.

A jury (or other finder of fact) must still say the amounts spent to save the cat’s life were reasonable and necessary. Civil Code, Section 3333. What fits within this definition is likely to vary from jury to jury, depending on the attitudes and experiences of the individual jurors. For example, a juror making minimum wage as a retail clerk may find it unreasonable to spend $36,000 to save cat’s life, let alone a stray cat, while an “animal lover” like myself may believe that no price can be put on the life of a pet. Additionally, Defendants are still entitled to present evidence to show why the costs were unreasonable and unnecessary under the circumstances.

This case changes nothing for folks who are unable to spend large amounts of money to save their pet’s life, and nurse it back to health. Especially in these difficult financial times, a cash-strapped family is likely unable to afford $6,000 of emergency veterinary care, particularly where it required $30,000 of follow-up care, and would be faced with the horrible prospect of having to put the animal down. In that situation, the family would gain no benefit from this case holding, as they would have no bills to present other than for euthanasia. The demonstrable damages would be minimal only, and the family would in turn have difficulty finding an attorney to represent them on such a small case.

Perhaps in the future, in light of this case and other advances in areas of animal rights and animal owner rights, veterinarians would provide treatment on a lien basis, as do medical providers in other personal injury cases. This type of lien arrangement might allow pet owners access to the emergency and other veterinarian treatment necessary to save their pets, while enabling them to pay from the proceeds of their claim or case. However, until such a time, most pet owners in this predicament may be left with only their memories.

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