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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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Calculating Damages and the Legal Value of Service Animals

The value that individuals with disabilities derive from service animals is immeasurable. But the concept of “immeasurability” is not a quantifiable term. From a legal perspective, it is important to measure loss of life and damage to property into some quantifiable term and explain how damages can be reasonably measured.

This blog post is concerned with a single question: When a person or companion pet physically harms or kills a service animal, how much damages can the disabled owner reasonably anticipate to win in court?

This is not an easy question.

Damages associated with the injury or loss of service animals is a new area of law, relatively unexplored and not well understood. The reasons we know very little about this area of law are primarily three-fold: (1) most service animals have not been harmed, (2) damages for the death or injury to a service animal is not widely reported, and (3) the legal rules related to damages of companion pets vary widely among jurisdictions. A fourth possible reason is that damages for companion pets that have been injured or killed are nominal, and attorneys may assume that damages for a trained service animal might be approximately the same as damages for a companion pet. This may be true in some jurisdictions.

If, for instance, the service animal dies prematurely as a result of an attack by another dog, then arguably, the first thing we need to do is figure out a reasonable market value of the service animal.

The media, as well as the organizations that train service animals, have been very good in sharing with the public that a well-trained service animal can be very expensive. Dogs, monkeys, and horses, that have been trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate a person’s disability can cost tens of thousands of dollars. From what I understand, the average cost for a professionally trained service dog is approximately $15,000.

Suppose an individual with a disability has had a professionally trained service dog for 4 years. Is the market value of the service dog $15,000? What if the service dog is one year shy of retirement, is it still worth $15,000?

Let’s say that a person with a disability trained her own dog to be a service dog? The service dog is a victim of a dog fight and dies. Was that service dog worth $15,000 even though it was not “professionally” trained?

Is the value of a service animal dependent upon (1) the amount of time expended in training the service animal, (2) the number of tasks the service animal can perform, and (3) the difficulty of these tasks? Should the value of the service animal also be dependent upon who trained the service animal?

There are so many questions to consider.

I would venture to say that the amount of damages associated with the injury of a service animal should most likely be related to:

  • emergency veterinary care;
  • the costs associated with rehabilitating the injured service animal back to health;
  • the time it takes for the injured service animal to return to work (if feasible);
  • the time it takes for the injured service animal to be retrained (if necessary).

The amount of damages associated with the premature (and unnatural) death of a service animal should most likely be related to:

  • emergency veterinary care (if applicable);
  • the length of time that the disabled person will need to adapt without a service animal;
  • the costs that the disabled person will require assistance until a service animal is provided.
  • the costs associated with purchasing and training the service animal to mitigate the person’s specific disability;

Note that I have not even considered the disabled person’s requests for damages for emotional distress and punitive damages associated with the injury or death of a service animal.

Unfortunately, the law has a long-standing perception that animals are mere “property.” When courts view pets as mere “property,” the plaintiff may not be able to win damages for emotional distress associated with the injury or loss of the service animal. An award for damages for emotional distress will largely depend on the jurisdiction where the case is tried, the judge’s views, as well as state law.

Fortunately, some courts have consistently recognized that animals, particularly dogs, are much more than mere “property.” This is a trend that will likely spread across the country as judges come to realize the importance of animals (and service animals) to human life. Despite this favorable trend, however, it will still be difficult to predict whether a judge will perceive a service animal as mere “property” or something much more than that.

As you can see, lawyers and judges have a lot of work cut out for them. They have to argue about many different issues to reach the ultimate question: “What is the legal value of a service animal and how much damages is a disabled person entitled to receive?”

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