By Cathy Hoang, University of Technology Sydney

This case note was originally published in the Animal Law Case Book, ed Sophie Riley (1st ed, 2015) and has been republished with minor edits by Voiceless with permission from the editor.   

Citation: Houseman v Dare 405 NJ Sup 538 (2009)

Court – Superior Court of New Jersey
Judges – Skillman, Graves and Grall JJ
Date of Judgment – 10 March 2009

FACTS OF THE CASE

Houseman, the appellant, and Dare, the respondent, had been engaged to be married for thirteen years and had jointly purchased a pedigree dog for $1500. They registered the dog with the American Kennel Club, declaring that they both owned the dog.

The couple had a strained relationship, which resulted in the termination of their engagement. Dare wished to retain the residence, and he purchased Houseman’s interest in the property. When Houseman left the residence, she took the dog with her. Houseman claimed that she and Dare had reached a verbal agreement that Houseman would receive possession of the dog and one half of the value of the house. Although Houseman would not have sought more than a half share of the house if she were not to receive the dog, she emphasised that her primary concern in the course of the negotiations with Dare was possession of the dog.

Houseman allowed Dare to take the dog for visits. Houseman claimed that when she asked Dare to reduce the agreement to writing, he told her she could trust him and that he would not keep the dog away from her. In late February 2007, Houseman left the pet in the care of Dare whilst she was on vacation. Upon her return, she requested that the dog be returned to her, which Dare refused to do. Houseman commenced legal action against Dare, claiming specific performance of the oral arrangement and her right of ownership of the pet.

Dare sold the residence and received more than double the amount that was given to Houseman.

The trial Court held that Dare had taken unfair advantage of Houseman by giving her less than half of the interest in their residence. It was satisfied that there was an agreement pertaining to the dog, and as such, the trial Court ordered Dare to pay Houseman $1500, the monetary value of the dog.

Houseman appealed the pre-trial determination that pets are personal property lacking the unique essential value to be the subject of an award of specific performance. She challenged this as a matter of law.

THE ISSUE

Whether an agreement providing for ownership of a dog may be the subject of an award of specific performance.

THE DECISION

The appeal was allowed and the case remanded to the trial Court to re-consider the order for specific performance and to re-examine the oral agreement made between the parties.

The Court identified that the award of specific performance is available where “money damages cannot compensate the injured party for the special subjective benefits he or she derives from possession.” The Court also stated that “consideration of special subjective value is equally appropriate when a court is called upon to exercise its equitable jurisdiction to resolve a dispute between joint owners of property that cannot be partitioned or sold without hardship.”

The Court indicated that it and courts in other jurisdictions had recognised that pets have this special “subjective value”. There would be no reason for a court of equity to be more reluctant to resolve competing claims for possession of a companion animal based on the “sincere affection” of one party than to resolve competing claims to an inanimate object on the basis of a relationship with the donor.

It was held that the trial court erred by declining to consider the operation of the oral agreement. The Court identified that in the context of property division, agreements about property that is jointly held are material. It was held that the special subjective value of the dog could be gleaned from Houseman’s testimony about the animal’s importance to her, and her efforts to enforce her right of possession. The fact that Houseman had indicated what the dog’s financial value could not be “viewed as a concession that the stipulated value was adequate to compensate her for loss of the special value given her efforts to pursue her claim for specific performance at trial.” Dare did not establish that an order for specific performance would be harsh or oppressive to him, and any order which enabled him to retain possession of the dog simply because he had possession of him or her at trial would “reward him for his breach”.

The Court remanded the matter to the trial court to examine the oral agreement and the propriety of an award of specific performance.

The trial court’s conclusions regarding the amount due to Houseman for her interest in the residence and jointly held savings account were affirmed.

COMMENTARY

This case exemplifies the way in which the remedy of specific performance may be available to enforce property division agreements applying to companion animals. While reiterating the property status of an animal, the case emphasises that animals have a unique subjective value of the kind that allows them to be the subject of an award of specific performance. It is also significant to note that consideration is usually only given to the relevant party’s interest in the animal, not on the welfare or best interests of the animal. The Court stated, “We are less confident that there are judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving questions of possession from the perspective of a pet, at least apart from cases involving abuse or neglect contrary to public policies expressed in laws designed to protect animals.”

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