The French National Assembly have moved toward changing part of the Napoleonic Code and finally recognize that pets are not simply “movable goods” but “living beings capable of feelings.” The new law would allow owners to sue over pain and suffering caused by negligence or wrongful killings. That leads to a rather interesting potential conflict with U.S. law.
Some 700,000 people signed petitions for the new change to offer more recognition and protection for dog, cats, horses and other pets. The change will clearly allow couples to file for shared custody in divorce cases and even leave inheritance to their pets. Critics charge that it will also be used to curtail breeding programs and even meat consumption.
Those predictions are hard to square with the simple language change. However, it is the oft-mentioned right to sue for “pain and suffering” that is most interesting. In the United States, pets remain chattel and their pain and suffering is not actionable. Instead, the pet is valued at their replacement cost – much like the rule under the Napoleonic Code. Damages are secured through the pain and suffering of the owner by being such torts as intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. The references in articles make it appear that the drafters assume that direct damages for pet pain can be actionable but I cannot find any relevant language to that effect. We have a good number of readers from France. Perhaps they can shed some light on that aspect of the new law.
For my part, it is not clear why pets would be recognized as having feelings but not wild animals. If a dog has such feelings, why doesn’t a wolf or fox? In my view, they all do have feelings and deserve greater protections (as we have previously discussed). The question is where to draw the line since we have a desire to protect animals from cruelty yet we raise animals to eat. Even with pets, the enhanced rights raise some interesting questions. For example, if a pet has feelings (which they clearly do), can a court take into account a preference for one owner over another in a divorce case? Children who reach a certain age are given such a preference in a custody fight.
It is also interesting to see language of being “capable of feelings” rather than clearly having feelings. I am not sure if this is just a translation issue since it would suggest that one could litigate the existence of feelings in a given breed or even a given animal.