No Damages for Embarrassment of Owning Three-Legged Dog

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Hard cases make bad law, as the saying goes, but sometimes they are also stupid.

Brown v. Swindell, a 1967 case out of Louisiana, is one of those cases where all the parties deserve some criticism, though the real creeps are the defendant and his wife.

The record reveals that on the morning of June 15, 1965, at approximately 2:00 A.M., the defendant's wife was awakened by the barking of a dog. She opened the front door and noticed the plaintiff's small dog on her front lawn, which she endeavored to "shoo away". She then laboriously testified that the animal bared his teeth and moved in such a menacing manner so as to indicate that he might attack her. Mrs. Swindell then called her husband, who had been sleeping, and he immediately came to her assistance armed with a pistol, placed himself in front of her, and then shot the dog [twice].

The record showed that these people never left their doorway and the dog never left the front lawn, so the claim of self-defense seems to have been total bullshit (I assume "laboriously testified" is a more polite way to say the wife was full of it).

The dog—who should not have been barking at 2:00 A.M. but hardly deserved two bullets for it—survived but lost one of its hind legs. Its owner then sued the defendant for $403, "representing a veterinarian's fee and damages which he asserts were incurred as a result of the unjustified shooting …." The vet fee was $96. The remainder of the claim was for emotional distress, which is what we are interested in here.

Traditionally, emotional-distress claims have not been allowed for pet injuries, because pets are considered property for legal purposes. Most pet owners would consider pets closer to family members than property, but courts are still split as to whether it is good policy to allow emotional-distress claims in this context. For example, last summer the New Jersey Supreme Court said no, but not long after that the California Court of Appeal said yes, but only if the defendant injured the pet intentionally.

But it turns out that Louisiana is one of the states that does allow such claims, and in fact that was the law in 1967, too. So why didn't Mr. Brown get his emotional-distress damages? It looks like he just didn't argue it the right way. Said the court:

We are convinced that the plaintiff's claim for damages caused by the embarrassment and humiliation which he insists he has experienced as the result of possessing a three legged dog is without merit. Such an element of damages is not recoverable in Louisiana.

That is, plaintiff seems to have argued not that he was heartbroken at the brutal injury to his little dog, his sole companion and the light of his life, but rather that he was embarrassed because now he had a three-legged dog following him around. Wow. Well, if that's your argument, no. In fact, let's give the other $307 to the dog.

Seems like this one is worth adding to the Case Law Hall of Fame.