To those who have loved and lost a pet, the experience of grief is profound. Research shows, in fact, that losing a pet can be just as difficult as losing a loved one. After losing a pet, the owner may take comfort in bringing home their pet’s remains for burial or within an urn. With these remains, the owner may then continue to honor their pet and find peace. When these remains are mishandled, the courts have suggested and held that there is recourse for the owner. As with many areas of animal law litigation, this is still a developing area- but there are some hints as to viable claims in existing caselaw.
New Jersey: The most noteworthy case in New Jersey, Quesada v. Compassion First Pet Hospitals, involved the death of a cat, Amor, who was euthanized at an animal hospital in Red Bank. 2021 WL 1235136 (App. Div. 2021). Following the euthanasia, the veterinarian told the owner to pick up Amor’s remains the next day. Unbeknownst to the owner, the veterinarian decapitated the animal to conduct a rabies test and turned the cat back over to the owner in this state. The owner filed suit against the veterinarian including counts of emotional distress, negligence, and bailment. The trial court dismissed all of these counts for failing to state a claim, but the Appellate Division disagreed, holding that the claims should not have been dismissed as the owner did adequately plead these claims. While the case is still ongoing, this indicates these types of counts may be viable against someone entrusted with an animal’s remains.
Nationally: Nationwide, one case coming from California addresses a pet crematorium claim directly. In Levy v. Only Cremations for Pets, Inc., pet owners sued a pet crematorium alleging they sent two of their dogs for cremation but were instead sent random ashes. 57 Cal. App.5th 203 (Cal. 2020). The Appellate Division agreed with the lower court that there were not sufficient claims under contract theory but disagreed with their dismissal on the trespass to chattel and negligence claims. Importantly, the Court noted that the “sole purpose of a private cremation of a pet is the emotional tranquility of the owner.” Therefore, even though there were only small economic damages from the cost of the cremation, the Court asserted emotional distress damages would be available to these owners, meeting the requirement of showing recoverable damages. This is important, as damages are often a challenge in veterinary malpractice claims.