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People refer to their dogs as being “just like a member of the family,” or man’s best friend. But pets that people consider priceless may be all but worthless in the cold eye of the law. Manchester, Conn., lawyer Derek V. Oatis has been pressing to change that view, both in the Legislature and in the courts. At the request of Connecticut’s Fund for Animals, he drafted a proposed law last year that would increase the civil cost of killing someone’s dog. It fell by the wayside in the Legislature. But in Putnam, Conn., Superior Court, Oatis is attempting to establish that a treasured family pet can be worth more than the mere cost of replacing it at the local pound. He’s representing Susan Coston, a Scotland, Conn., dairy worker who milks 100 cows for a living and breeds boxers. On Feb. 29, 2000, Coston found one of her two dogs, Laura, a mixed-breed boxer, lying on the back steps of her house, bleeding. She called for her other dog, a purebred boxer named Beethoven, but he did not come. In her quick hunt for Beethoven, she saw her neighbor Patricia Reardon, an eye doctor, crouched with a .22 rifle aimed at the dog, Coston alleged in court papers. After Coston begged Reardon not to shoot Beethoven, the doctor lowered her rifle and let Coston take him away from Reardon’s property. Laura’s bleeding, allegedly from Reardon’s rifle shots, later proved fatal. In a subsequent civil suit, Coston invoked Connecticut’s statute allowing civil recovery for the wrongful killing of a dog, along with conversion and treble damages for theft. Additional counts of negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress were challenged in a motion to strike. Reardon’s lawyer, Renee W. Dwyer of Hartford, Conn.’s Gordon, Muir & Foley, objected to portions of the pleadings that alleged the potential damages exceeded the replacement cost of the dog. NO DISTRESS Superior Court Judge Francis J. Foley III ruled against Coston on both counts of emotional distress, concluding that they were a vain attempt to plead bystander emotional distress. That cause of action was only recently allowed in Connecticut, limited to very close relatives of the plaintiff. The court cited the superior court case of Jason v. Rotz, in which a man and his toy poodle were attacked by a pit bull, that struck bystander claims but left the door open for traditional emotional distress claims. Judge Foley concluded that bystander emotional distress for a dog would be beyond the “imaginable future reach” of the 1996 state supreme court bystander precedent, Clohessey v. Batchelor. The defense contended that treble damages for theft could not apply, because killing is not theft. In a motion, however, Oatis contended that killing is just one form of conversion — depriving an owner of property — and the theft statute would apply. The judge agreed, refusing to strike the theft count in his Oct. 17 ruling. The remaining challenge for the plaintiffs is to prove damages beyond the replacement cost of the dog, which is legally just personal property. Oatis, of Manchester’s Beck & Eldergill, cited a 1998 trial decision, Q River Terminals v. Gilbert, for the rule that damages for a loss of personal property are not simply limited to what the item would bring on the open market. The victim “should be allowed to recover the value to him based on his actual money loss, all the circumstances considered,” excluding any fanciful or sentimental value. Coston, in an interview, said she plans to press forward with the suit. “This is something we felt we needed to do,” she said, noting that Laura had received veterinary care and obedience training. In a legal memo, Oatis recognized that it might be difficult to ascertain the full loss to the dog’s owner, but that difficulty is no reason to avoid the process. The cost of healing a dog, even when it far exceeded its purchase value, was recognized by a New Jersey court, he noted.

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