The phone call came while Michael Ferenczy and Julie Pace were in Chicago for a wedding this past spring. Lisa Schreiber, a co-owner of Wagtime, the Shaw daycare facility where they’d boarded their nine-month-old puppy, Pip, was on the line explaining that the rescue dog had been struck by a hit-and-run driver while on a walk.
What Schreiber allegedly didn’t reveal to the horrified couple, according to a lawsuit they filed in May in DC Superior Court, was that Pip wasn’t wearing the proper leash and harness, a situation that allowed her to break free and run into traffic. The couple also says Wagtime lied about who was walking Pip, how many other dogs were on the walk, where the incident occurred, and even Pip’s condition on her way to the hospital. They say Wagtime told them Pip was still breathing, though a witness says Pip died at the scene.
Schreiber denies a cover-up and says any discrepancies in recounting the incident were mistakes: “It was a horrible accident. The dog-walker dropped the leash, but it couldn’t have been changed by using a different harness or walking on a different street.”
Ferenczy and Pace are suing for negligence and emotional distress. Just as important as winning in court, Ferenczy says through tears, is that the public be made aware of what happened to Pip. The couple’s suit asks for more than the “jurisdictional minimum” of $5,000, without specifying an exact amount. “If daycares had to tell people what their track record was, it might make them take precautions,” says Ferenczy.
There are no federal requirements for opening a dog daycare, and statewide rules don’t exist in Virginia or Maryland, either. DC’s Department of Health is in the process of drafting rules to establish standards for commercial pet-care facilities in the District. Currently, DC kennels and daycares require a basic business license—the same kind you’d get to open a clothing store, for example.
While Pip’s owners couldn’t have predicted the tragedy and it’s unclear whether Wagtime was to blame, experts advise people to look for certain signs when evaluating daycare facilities. Emily Weiss, vice president of research and development at the ASPCA, says daycare staff should walk only one dog at a time. She recommends that owners find out where dogs will be walked, ensure that their pets wear up-to-date ID tags, and inform the facility of any behaviors (such as leash-pulling) that could affect walks.
She also suggests choosing a daycare center that separates dogs into small groups of similar-size animals. To prevent fights, the facility should be large enough for dogs to move away from the group if they want to. It should be clean and require that all dogs are vaccinated. Above all, says Weiss, “you should feel comfortable after a walk-through visit.”
As troubling as it is to lose a pet, animals are in fact not considered family members in the eyes of the law. They’re property—a status no different from that of a TV or iPhone—which means emotional-distress claims over their deaths often don’t succeed. What’s more, as far as plaintiffs are concerned, rescue dogs like Pip have a significantly lower acquisition price than even middling electronic gadgets, meaning a successful destruction-of-property suit won’t do much to hurt the defendant.
Still, there’s reason for Ferenczy and Pace to hold out hope: Last December, a Maryland family was awarded more than $200,000 after a Frederick County sheriff’s deputy shot their dog, a ruling heralded by animal advocates as major progress for how courts view pets.
Matthew Liebman, a senior attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, says that to be compensated for emotional distress over a pet, plaintiffs usually must have witnessed the incident or prove it was so shocking that “no reasonable person would tolerate the behavior.” Though Ferenczy and Pace didn’t see Pip’s accident firsthand, Liebman says any evidence that Wagtime lied about the specifics of the accident or the dog’s condition will bolster their position.
No matter how the case turns out, it won’t bring back Pip. Says Ferenczy: “We will never forget that we had this fantastic rescue dog who was completely unique.”
Editorial fellow Sarah Lindner can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in our September 2015 issue of Washingtonian.