Image: Scheeles
Matt Houston  /  AP
Denis, left, and Sarah Scheele, are shown with their dogs from left Sam, Spirit, Lightfoot and Lucy Wednesday Nov. 29, 2006, at their home in Annapolis, Md. The Scheeles are suing a Vermont man for shooting and killing one of dogs, Shadow, shown in the photo being held by Denis.
updated 12/4/2006 2:04:24 PM ET 2006-12-04T19:04:24

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 around the country that asks 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 Sarah 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 two 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, Md., to Vermont to watch his 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. Dustin, 74, who had been squirrel hunting that day, had a combination BB and pellet gun at the ready.

According to the Scheeles, Shadow didn’t menace Dustin. But Dustin fired a pellet at Shadow in hopes of scaring him off.

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

$4,000 restitution
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 plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“What we’re trying to do is expand the law to recognize that the companionship between a dog and its owner is such that the owner is entitled to compensation” when that relationship is destroyed, said David Putter, an attorney hired to help with the appeal.

Though the attorneys 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.

Between property and people
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. The cat was euthanized.

Animal law expert Geordie Duckler said appellate courts have lagged society at large in recognizing the relationship between a pet and its owner.

“As soon as some good appellate panel (of judges) recognizes this special relationship that people have had for a long time with their pets, I think it will be like the flip of a light switch,” and the law nationwide will change, said Duckler, a Portland, Ore., lawyer.

For his part, Dustin believes the issue has been overblown.

“These people think that this dog is a human being,” he said. “It’s not a human being. And that dog was trespassing.”

Dustin said he can’t afford a lawyer and would take whatever comes as the litigation continues.

“If they want to put me in jail, that’s what they can do,” he said. “I’m not going to pay them anything because I don’t owe them anything. All I’m going to do is go to court and go through the motions.”

Sarah Scheele said she and her husband are pursing the case to honor Shadow.

“We’re not in it for the money,” she said. “We want to get national legislation that will recognize pets as companions and not just property.”

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