ASSEMBLY, No. 3757, recently introduced in the New Jersey Assembly, would “[c]reate . . . rights of action for pecuniary damages against person committing certain harm to domestic companion animal.”

So you might ask yourself, like I did, “what the heck does that mean” and “how is that different from the existing law?”

Let’s break this down.

First, “pecuniary” simply means “economic.” So, this law permits owners of domestic companion animals to sue and recover economic damages from someone who either:

  1. was found criminally or civilly liable under the state animal cruelty statutes or
  2. was accused of veterinary malpractice that resulted in injury or death to the owner’s animal.

As specified in the statue, economic damages means may include, but need not be limited to, the economic value of the animal, replacement value of the animal, breeding potential of the animal, veterinary expenses incurred by the owner in treating the animal, reasonable burial or cremation expenses, reimbursement of animal training expenses, any unique or special value of the animal, such as if the animal is a guide or service animal, and lost wages incurred by the owner due to the loss of or injury to the animal.

Fortunately, the statute limits remedies to “the person who was the owner of the animal at the time the act of animal cruelty was committed.” The statute of limitations for such lawsuits (the time limits for a suit to be filed) is one year.

So would this law provide that is not already available to an aggrieved pet owner?

Probably not much, in its current form.

While there is no private right of action under the animal cruelty statute in New Jersey, a civil lawsuit can be filed to recoup economic damages against someone found criminally or civilly liable under the statute. The fact that statutory damages are available means that there can be no credible argument that damages are not available.

As far as the impact to veterinarians, there is also not much that would change.  Whether brought under a theory of negligence, breach of a duty of care, such as failure to obtain informed consent, breach of contract, this bill would not increase the amount of damages available if a veterinarian is sued for malpractice.  However, I could see someone arguing that since damages are available statutorily the fact finder (judge or jury) should assess greatest damages allowed.

I think the risk regarding this bill lies in its potential future amendments that would “noneconomic” in addition to economic damages.

The official bill statement follows:

This bill would create statutory rights of action for pecuniary damages against persons committing certain acts of harm to domestic companion animals.

Specifically, under the bill, a person who owns a domestic companion animal that has been subjected to an act of animal cruelty, resulting in the death of or injury to the animal, for which the person committing the act has been found guilty of, or civilly liable for, violating an animal cruelty law of the State, may bring a civil action for pecuniary damages against the person committing the act of cruelty. Additionally, the owner of a domestic companion animal that the owner believes has been subjected to veterinary malpractice, resulting in the death of or injury to the animal, may bring a civil action for pecuniary damages against the veterinarian allegedly committing the veterinary malpractice. In the case of animal cruelty, the owner would have one year after the date of conviction, or entry of judgment, for the act of cruelty to bring the suit for pecuniary damages. In the case of alleged veterinary malpractice, the owner would have two years after the cause of action for veterinary malpractice has accrued.

Under the bill, pecuniary damages would include, but need not be limited to: the economic value of the animal, replacement value of the animal, breeding potential of the animal, veterinary expenses incurred by the owner in treating the animal, reasonable burial or cremation expenses, reimbursement of animal training expenses, any unique or special value of the animal, such as a guide or service animal, and lost wages incurred by the owner due to the loss or disability of the animal. Domestic companion animal is defined as an animal commonly referred to as a pet that lives in the household, and that has been bought, bred, raised, or otherwise acquired in accordance with local ordinances and State and federal law for the primary purpose of providing companionship to the owner, rather than for business or agricultural purposes. Domestic companion animal would not include domestic livestock, animals used for biomedical research purposes, or animals used in activities regulated by the federal Animal Welfare Act.