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Vermont Court Weighs What A Dog's Love Is Worth

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This is undated photo released by the Scheele family of their pet dog Shadow, killed when he wandered onto someone's property and shot.
This is undated photo released by the Scheele family of their pet dog Shadow, killed when he wandered onto someone's property and shot.

By Devin Dwyer For ABC News

Can Animal Lovers Sue for Emotional Distress in Pet’s Death?

What’s a dog’s love worth?

That’s the question before the Vermont Supreme Court today in a case that could create a new legal doctrine for animal lovers who sue when their beloved pets die from acts of malicious intent.

Sarah and Denis Scheele of Annapolis, Md., who brought the case, lost their mixed-breed dog “Shadow” in 2003 when a man fatally shot him after the pet wandering into his yard.

Lewis Dustin, 76, of Northfield, Vt., pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and was given a year probation. He also was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay $4,000 to the Scheeles for the costs of adoption, medical bills and cremation.

But the Scheeles say that doesn’t come close to covering the emotional cost inflicted by the traumatic incident and loss of companionship, equating the death of Shadow to the death of a child.

“Shadow was our little boy, our son, our child,” Sarah Scheele wrote on her Web site JusticeforShadow.com. “We loved him as if he were our own flesh and blood.”

The couple filed a civil suit against Dustin in 2006, pressing the courts to recognize Shadow as a “member of the family, not mere property.” They are seeking $6,000 in damages for “emotional distress” and loss of the “solace, affection, friendship, and love that they shared” with Shadow.

Courts across the country have typically treated pets like property, limiting the ability of plaintiffs to collect damages for emotional loss.

The Scheeles’ lawyer Heidi Groff told ABCNews.com the Vermont high court has left the door open for pursuit of damages in situations like this one.

“The Vermont Supreme Court has previously said…that they recognize a special relationship between dogs and their owners and that that is a unique relationship that should and could be recognized by the court,” she said.

The incident occurred during the Scheeles’ July 2003 visit to relatives in Northfield, Vt., a small town south of Montpelier. Shadow wandered into the neighboring yard of Dustin, who fired an air pellet rifle at the dog to scare him off his property.

Dustin, who did not attend today’s hearing, declined to comment on the case when reached by ABCNews.com other than to say that he did not intend to kill the dog. His attorney David Blythe did not immediately return calls for comment.

“Suddenly, Shadow let out a horrific yelp,” Sarah Scheele wrote on her Web site. “I screamed, ‘Shadow! What’s the matter sweetie?’& My mind then registered the ‘pop’ noise that I had heard and I yelled to my husband, ‘Denis, I think Shadow has been shot!'”

Should Pet Lovers Be Compensated for Emotional Loss?

Scheele said her husband ran to the neighbor’s house and confronted Dustin, who said he had a problem with dogs on his property and aimed at Shadow’s butt. Shadow later died en route to the veterinarian.

“We cannot sleep, we cannot eat, we cannot laugh & all we can do is cry,” Sarah Scheele wrote. “Denis has trouble focusing on work & not being able to put the horrific memory of Shadow running and leaping into his arms screaming in pain. … As his mommy, I feel so lost. I can’t sleep and I can’t stop crying. My days are so empty without my little boy.”

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled earlier this year against a plaintiff who sought damages for the emotional loss from a cat’s death by veterinarian negligence.

“Pets are not property,” Martin Mersereau of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told ABCNews.com. “In the law’s eyes they are, but things are changing. Animals are family members, animals are loved — in many cases — like children.”

The Scheeles’ case, he said, is helping to facilitate change in how the courts view killings of beloved animals. Of the average 500 animal cruelty complaints filed with the group each week, he said, the majority involve pets harmed — often shot — while outside unsupervised.


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MissBecker
MissBecker
11 years ago

I am so saddened by reading this about Shadow. That little dog never thought in a million years that his neighbor next door would do such a horrific thing to him. This man should be jailed!!!! NOT doing community service…he killed a living creature for NO reason whatsoever. I wouldn't trust this neighbor for anything. I would be packing up and leaving. God Bless Shadow and his family.

Dog Gifts
11 years ago

I agree with Miss Becker – the man should be jailed… but that won't happen… maybe it's time Americans insured their dogs against idiots shooting their dog… follow me for a second… if you ensure your dog for $500,000 then the insurance company is able to prosecute the person and there's no value for the court to estimate.

Dog Gifts
11 years ago

I agree with Miss Becker – the man should be jailed… but that won't happen… maybe it's time Americans insured their dogs against idiots shooting their dog… follow me for a second… if you ensure your dog for $500,000 then the insurance company is able to prosecute the person and there's no value for the court to estimate.

Jane
Jane
11 years ago

Didn't the dog wonder onto the guys yard? I'm not saying that what he did wasn't over the top but if the owner of the dog secured the yard something like this wouldn't happen either way. The guy is also 76 yr old and is being charged way more then guys that have killed dogs where I am. Though it is sad the dog died I still think part of this is at fault to the owners of the dog. Technically it is the guys property.

aussie lover
aussie lover
9 years ago

If a human wanders onto to the neighbours propery and the neighbour shoots it they are  charged with a type of murder charder, why is a dog different?

skg
skg
9 years ago

on the one hand, the dog should not have been able to wander around unsupervised or off lead.  On the other hand, it’s a living creature and this guy went WAY overboard trying to “protect” his property (air gun or semi, it doesn’t make a difference).  As living, breathing, feeling creatures, I believe animal cruelty should be treated exactly the same as child abuse and no different.  Animals  are, after all, completely dependent on us to take care of them just as a child is.  It should be a felony, period.

skg
skg
9 years ago

on the one hand, the dog should not have been able to wander around unsupervised or off lead.  On the other hand, it’s a living creature and this guy went WAY overboard trying to “protect” his property (air gun or semi, it doesn’t make a difference).  As living, breathing, feeling creatures, I believe animal cruelty should be treated exactly the same as child abuse and no different.  Animals  are, after all, completely dependent on us to take care of them just as a child is.  It should be a felony, period.

skg
skg
9 years ago

on the one hand, the dog should not have been able to wander around unsupervised or off lead.  On the other hand, it’s a living creature and this guy went WAY overboard trying to “protect” his property (air gun or semi, it doesn’t make a difference).  As living, breathing, feeling creatures, I believe animal cruelty should be treated exactly the same as child abuse and no different.  Animals  are, after all, completely dependent on us to take care of them just as a child is.  It should be a felony, period.

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