Casper Family Whose Dogs Died in Traps Loses Supreme Court Appeal
The family whose three St. Bernard dogs died in traps on public land near their house in 2015 lost their appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court on Wednesday about whether they could receive emotional damages for the loss of their pets.
The Court's decision upholds an earlier ruling by a Natrona County District Court judge.
"Members of the Cardenas family cannot recover damages for emotional injuries suffered because of the loss of their dogs," Justice Kari Gray wrote for the Court.
Likewise, the Cardenas children "have no claim for witnessing the deaths of their dogs," Gray wrote.
The family lived at the base of Casper Mountain and would let their dogs -- Brooklynn, Barkley, Jax -- run free on an area of state land their their house and did so on Nov. 29. Barkley and Jax came home, but Brooklynn didn't. On Dec. 2, children Savannah and Braylon, along with Barkley and Jax, went looking for Brooklynn. As they were looking, the two dogs got caught in snare traps and died. The children, already distraught, found Brooklynn had died in a trap, too.
In December 2016, the family sued the trapper later identified as Siegel Swanson, the Game and Fish Commission and Department and their representatives. The latter two defendants later were dismissed from the case.
In August 2022, Natrona County District Court Judge Daniel Forgey dismissed the case, writing that the parties had reached an agreement about the property claims of the dogs.
The Cardenas family then appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
In April, the Supreme Court -- Chief Justice Kate Fox and justices Keith Kautz, Lynne Boomgaarden, Kari Gray and John Fenn -- came from Cheyenne to Casper to hear the oral arguments.
The case boiled down to two issues: "Can members of the Cardenas family recover damages for emotional injuries suffered because of the loss of their dogs?" because of Swanson's negligence in setting the traps, and "Should this Court allow the recovery of emotional distress damages for the loss of a pet?"
Attorney Gary Shockey represented the Cardenas family.
Attorney Winslow Taylor from Colorado represented Swanson.
Shockey said the dogs could legally run on state lands, but Swanson set the traps illegally because he did not receive special permission from the Office of State Lands and Investments.
Because the dogs were killed illegally, the Cardenas family should receive damages for emotional harm, Shockey said.
Taylor responded the Cardenas family is asking for emotional damages to loss of property.
The Wyoming Legislature has determined that dogs are personal property and ordinary negligence in a case like this is not a cause for emotional damages, he said.
The law allows victims of intentional actions of fraud or malice to recover damages, but the trapper did not intend to harm the dogs, Taylor said.
If lawsuits for emotional damages for property losses were allowed, the volume of cases would burden the judicial system, he added.
"The law is clear and the law has been clear that property damages don't give rise to emotional damages or circumstances of ordinary negligence," Taylor said.
In its opinion on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Swanson, in effect barring the Cardenas family from suing him for damages.
The justices referred to several court cases, some of which were discussed during the oral arguments they heard in April.
Wyoming has allowed recovery for purely emotional injuries, but has restricted the circumstances where recovery for emotional injuries without accompanying physical injuries will be allowed, Gray wrote.
"While we do not question the Cardenas family's heartache over the deaths of their dogs [a case law precedent] precludes recovery for emotional damages under these facts," Gray wrote.
In another issue, the Court declined a request from the Cardenas family "to adopt a 'rule that emotional damages are recoverable [for loss of property] when the acts or omissions of the defendant were illegal or unauthorized by law.'"
The family cited an academic paper saying some pet owners regard their animals as something other than property, and that emotional attachment should fall into a "property-plus category."
The Cardenas family, Gray wrote, "proposes the Court draw a distinction between animate and inanimate personal property and allow recovery for emotional distress damages the animate property is negligently harmed."
That argument would be best taken up by the Legislature, Gray wrote, "and we decline to expand the reach of emotional damages to property inanimate or animate."