Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Insurance Q&A: "How much is a pet worth?"

We periodically field questions from bereaved pet owners who've had a pet killed by a car, only to be offered what seems like a very low sum -- typically $50 to $100 -- from the driver's insurance company.

The reality is that pet owners usually can't recover much more than their out of pocket expenses when an animal is killed due to someone's negligence. And sometimes they won't even cover medical expenses for the injured animal.

Here's why: under current law, pets are valued as property and valued at what they'd cost to replace. (That's the same way insurers decide the worth of, for example, a totaled car.) You may be able to negotiate a slightly higher payment -- our consumer advocacy staff once helped get more money for a slain goat -- but the sentimental value of a longtime pet is often much, much higher.
In recent years, there have been a growing number of cases in which plaintiffs are arguing that a beloved pet is more than just property, and that insurance payouts should recognize that.

The Wall Street Journal last week reported on a Texas case in which a shelter mistakenly put a dog to death. The owners sued, claiming emotional damage from the loss of their 7-year-old dog, whom they felt was part of their family. An appellate court ruled in the couple's favor in 2011, saying that the special value of "man's best friend" should be recognized.

The case is now in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court.