Wyoming Supreme Court Hears Arguments About Damages From Dogs Killed by Traps
Legal questions -- especially about emotional damages -- surrounding the deaths of three St. Bernard dogs in Casper came before the Wyoming Supreme Court during oral arguments in a special hearing at Casper College on Tuesday.
In late 2014, two children, Savannah and Braylon Cardenas, looked for one of their St. Bernards missing after Thanksgiving. They found Brooklyn killed by a snare trap on state land near their home at the base of Casper Mountain.
Savannah and Braylon then saw their other two St. Bernards -- Barkley and Jax --ensnared and killed in other traps.
While a spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said the unidentified trapper was devastated by the dogs' deaths, that didn't ameliorate the trauma the children and their parents -- Robert and Ashley Cardenas -- suffered.
In December 2016, the family sued the trapper later identified as Siegel Swanson, the Game and Fish Commission and Department and their representatives.
On Aug. 1, 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.
"All other claims in the case, with the possible exception of an emotional loss and personal injury claim on behalf of Braylon Cardenas, have been dismissed," Forgey wrote.
The judge then wrote the issue of "emotional traumatic loss claims" could be appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
On Sept. 16, the Cardenas family (as appellants) filed their intention to appeal to the high court, and Siegel Swanson as the defendant, or appellee. The family, through their attorney Gary Shockey, filed their appellant brief on Nov. 18.
Siegal, through his attorney Michael T. Sullivan of the Tucker Holmes firm of Centennial, Colorado, filed the responding appellee brief on Jan. 13.
Shockey responded with a reply on Jan. 30.
On Tuesday, 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 as part of its efforts to show the state how it conducts hearings at the Supreme Court building in Cheyenne.
Winslow Taylor, an attorney with the Tucker Holmes firm in Colorado, argued for Swanson.
The Cardenas family, through Shockey, asked the Supreme Court to rule on three issues:
- "One: Were the snares which killed the Cardenas dogs illegally set/hidden on State lands, and should the Trial Court have granted requests for a determination that trapping on State lands was illegal/unauthoriized absent permission from the Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI)?
- "Two: Do Braylon and Savannah Cardenas, present in the chaos when their dogs, Barkley and Jax, were caught in snares, and died in their arms, have claims for emotional injuries?
- "Three: Should the Supreme Court adopt a limited rule allowing for recovery of emotional damages for the loss of a pet?"
Shockey spoke first, saying the dogs could legally run on state lands, but the trapper 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.
But Justices Fox, Kautz and Fenn pointed to some problems with Shockey's argument.
"I like my dog; I like my cat better," Fox said. "Should we have a heirarchy of pets?"
Fenn said awarding damages for emotional pain from a traumatic event such as the survivor of a car crash could open a floodgate of litigation.
Kautz said state law maintains that people don't get emotional damages for lost property, and dogs are legally considered property regardless of how much people love them.
In his opposing argument, Taylor said 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 emotional damages were allowed, the volume of cases would burden the judicial system, he added.
Taylor cited a case of newlyweds who moved to a house that didn't have proper water protection. Water got into the house and damaged mementoes from their wedding, and that caused emotional distress. As painful as that was, the newlyweds could not recover damages for their emotional pain, he said.
"Nobody is disputing the significant relationship people have with their pets," Taylor said. He's not mitigating the emotional bonds by referring to them as "property," but rather using "property" in a legal sense.
A justice and Taylor said this is more a matter for the Legislature than the court.
"The line has to be drawn somewhere," Taylor said. "And this is where the court has drawn the line."
"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 aid.
Shockey had the final word.
He said the trapper admits he was negligent in this case but not negligent enough.
"He intentionally set these snares, and knowing he set them he could have caused damages," Shockey said.
He concluded with, "I disagree that dogs are property."
The Wyoming Supreme Court will make a ruling at a later date.