Saturday, July 20, 2013

Who speaks for "Peppermint"?

On February 17, 2007, Peppermint, a Bishon Frise, was viciously attacked by an unleashed German Sheppard.  Marcia and John Irwin, Peppermint's owners, sued the owners of the Sheppard under the Massachusetts "dog bite" law, Chapter 140, Section 155

The Trial Court found the defendants liable under the statute and awarded damages to the Irwins in the amount of $8,608.05 - the total of their veterinary bills.

The defendants appealed and contended that "the measure of damages should not have been the cost of treating the injured dog but rather the diminution in value of the dog as a result of the attack.  The defendants also argued "that the maximum recovery available to the plaintiffs" should be the market value of the dog!

Writing for the Northern District of the Appellate Division of the District Court Department, Judge Pierce disagreed with both contentions and upheld the damages awarded by the trial court.

The decision, Irwin v. Deresh, 2012 Mass. App. Div. 142, 2012 WL 2702960, is a perfect example of the workings of the American legal system in general and the ability of the courts to administer justice.  In an age and culture which often misunderstands and/or criticizes both,  Irwin should be taught in every Civics class.  The two legal concepts of statutory construction and precedent  are central to the decision in this case - and to the many cases decided in appellate courts across the country every working day of the year.

Chapter 140, Section 155 of the General Laws reads, in part, "If any dog shall do any damage to either the body or property of any person, the owner or keeper.....shall be liable for such damage...."  Like many statutes, the dog bite statute states a general rule; however, the legislature could not look into the future to anticipate every controversy that might arise under the statute.  In this case, how to determine damages is a perfect example.  Judge Pierce, in his decision, looks at Massachusetts case law that determines how damages are to be measured.  Reasoning that "fair market value" would place the dog in the same category as an "automobile or appliance, whose market value and replacement cost can be determined with a high degree of accuracy",  Judge Pierce looks at other cases where "diminution in market value is unavailable or unsatisfactory as a measure of damages..."
and holds that awarding "plaintiffs the reasonable amount paid in veterinary costs was well within the trial court's proper exercise of discretion and wholly consistent with the goal of returning the plaintiffs to the position they were in prior to the wrongful conduct."

Under the doctrines of statutory construction and  precedent it is now  the statute as interpreted by Judge Pierce that can be applied to a case with similar facts. 

Who speaks for "Peppermint"?  No less authority than the judicial branch of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!