A lawsuit against Washington State University involving the euthanization of a sick dog could set a new legal precedent on the emotional value of pets.
The case originated in 2012, when an Alaskan malamute named Kaisa was diagnosed with cancer. The dog’s owner, Robert Repin of Cle Elum, Washington, brought Kaisa to WSU’s veterinary teaching hospital and, after learning she had only months to live, agreed to have her euthanized.
Repin claims veterinarians botched the procedure, causing his dog to suffer, and that he’s entitled to damages for emotional distress – not just the $260 he paid to have his 12-year-old dog put down. Existing case law doesn’t allow Washingtonians to recoup emotional-distress damages for the wrongful deaths of pets or “companion animals.” Only people.
Washington’s Division III Court of Appeals ruled against Repin this week, but Chief Judge George Fearing wrote a concurring opinion “to advocate a change in the law,” calling on the state Supreme Court to rule that pets can be as emotionally valuable as people in cases of medical malpractice.
“Unfortunately, Washington law has strayed from these principles and values by jaundicely viewing pets as just another piece of personal property,” Fearing wrote.
WSU officials said Wednesday they couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Repin’s attorney is Adam Karp, a Gonzaga University alum, proud vegan and self-described animal law “crusader.” He’s based in Bellingham and has represented countless grieving pet owners, including one woman whose dog was fatally shot by police officers. That case helped establish a legal claim for “malicious injury” to a pet in Washington.
“The goal is to align the law with the way Washingtonians live day-to-day with their animals,” Karp said in a phone call Wednesday.
Karp contends that courts should award emotional-distress damages to people who lose pets because of the actions of others – negligent, malicious or otherwise. He has critics, however.
“To subject veterinarians to a claim for a pet owner’s emotional distress damages would have profound societal effects,” Judge Robert Lawrence-Berrey wrote in a dissenting opinion in Repin’s case. “It would likely put many veterinarians out of business, it would sharply increase veterinarian bills for pet owners, and it would result in veterinarians refusing to perform emergency operations.”
A group of veterinary associations echoed those concerns in a brief they submitted in favor of WSU. They also pointed out that Repin chose to be present for Kaisa’s euthanization.
“Creating emotion-based liability in pet litigation is not the pro-pet position,” the group wrote. “Pets do not benefit from these awards, only owners do.”
Repin, an unmarried gold prospector with no children, held his beloved dog as WSU veterinarians, assisted by a fourth-year medical student, gave her two doses of a drug called Euthasol. The appelate judges wrote that Repin “requested that he sign paperwork before the euthanasia because he did not trust his mental state after the procedure.”
He claims no one told him all the ways Kaisa might react to a lethal injection, a claim the university disputes.
The parties also disagree on several details of the procedure – how many times Kaisa howled in distress, for example, and how long it took a veterinarian to retrieve a second dose of Euthasol after the first dose failed to stop the dog’s heart.
One WSU veterinarian reported that “the euthanasia did not go smoothly” and “it is possible that the euthanasia solution was perivascular,” meaning it was secreted into tissue outside of a blood vessel.
Another veterinarian, testifying as an expert witness for Repin, told judges: “That is not euthanasia. It is torturous to both the animal and her owner.”
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