Friday, March 27, 2009

New Jersey: companion animal's value to owner must be considered in custody battle

NJ.com reports on a state appellate decision by a three-judge panel that held courts should consider the "special subjective value" of companion animals. Money alone was insufficient to compensate a woman whose ex-fiance was keeping "her beloved seven-year-old pug, Dexter." The Animal Legal Defense Fund and Lawyers in Defense of Animals had filed friend of the court briefs on behalf of the woman. In its decision, the court held that custody of a companion animal was an equitable matter and that specific performance, such as returning an animal to his or her rightful owner was a role for the court to play:
Specific performance is generally recognized as the appropriate remedy when an agreement concerns possession of property such as "heirlooms, family treasures and works of art that induce a strong sentimental attachment." That is so because money damages cannot compensate the injured party for the special subjective benefits he or she derives from possession. . . . There is no reason for a court of equity to be more wary in resolving competing claims for possession of a pet based on one party's sincere affection for and attachment to it than in resolving competing claims based on one party's sincere sentiment for an inanimate object based upon a relationship with the donor.
Although the decision is steeped in the notion that animals are property, the fact that the court recognized that the special nature of companion animals cannot be captured with money is a step in the right direction. The entire decision is available at this link from Rutgers U.

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