Of doggie damages and companionship with sheep

Overlawyered has the story that has Massachusetts lawyers abuzz. As reported in today’s Boston Globe, a family whose dog was killed by leaking electricity from an old NStar Electric lamppost site has turned down NStar’s offer of $200,000 in “comfort money” and says it will sue unless it receives $740,000 from the utility — an amount equal to the annual salary of NStar’s CEO.

If you want to see what Mass. lawyers are saying about the story, you can find the discussion here. (Click “Read Messages,” then scroll down to “Damages for death of dog.”

Now here’s what Overlawyered doesn’t mention:

  • There is actually relevant caselaw in Mass., Krasnecky v. Meffen, in which plaintiffs sought damages for emotional distress and loss of companionship following the killing of their sheep. They lost, in part because they did not actually witness the killings.
  • In the case reported today, the dog’s 13-year-old owner was present and witnessed the electrocution.
  • This is the third dog death in Boston since 2000 caused by stray voltage. The next victim might not be a dog.
  • The family would donate most of the $750,000 to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Rescue League.

At first glance, this sounds like the kind of story that gives lawyers a bad name. But maybe, as the family’s lawyer suggests, only a sufficiently harsh financial sanction will force the utility to resolve the problem and prevent further injuries.

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  • I wonder how you reach the conclusion that the family “would donate most of the $750,000” ($740,000 per the Globe) to animal charities. At the press conference, according to the Globe, attorney Swomley — who was at pains to portray the suit as not a money grab — said the family plans on “keeping $200,000, plus enough to pay for four years of college for Kyle and his brother Alec, 10”. At, say, Boston College (currently $37,413 room and board, and who knows how high the figure’ll be by the time the boys are grown?) that amounts to roughly another $300,000 ($37K x four years x 2 boys), leaving $240,000 of the settlement. And assuming Swomley takes, say, 30% of the $740,000 = $220,000 for his fee, that would leave a grand total of $20,000 to go to the animal charities — assuming there aren’t expenses and that sort of thing to be charged against the remainder.

    You’re probably right that I should have expanded my three-sentence summary of the case at Overlawyered to delve further into these matters, since they afford valuable insight into how lawyers can manage the p.r. aspects of their cases.