Damiano v. Lind, 2011 Wash. App. LEXIS 2000 (Aug. 25, 2011), involved “a dispute between next door neighbors over the disappearance of a cat named Boo.” The cat’s owner, Ms. Damiano, heard Boo meowing from the vicinity of Mr. Lind’s garage on the morning of its disappearance but when she confronted Mr. Lind, he denied seeing the cat. He later admitted to a police officer, however, that he had trapped a cat meeting Boo’s description in a live trap under his porch and later released it. He explained that he used the trap to catch skunks and didn’t know that the cat belonged to Ms. Damiano when he released it. Boo was never found.
The Damianos filed a lawsuit against the Linds, alleging claims of bailment, negligence, malicious injury to a pet, trespass to chattels, conversion, outrage, gross negligence, and fraud. The trial judge dismissed all of the charges on summary judgment. On appeal, the court affirmed dismissal on most of the counts but held that it was error to dismiss the claims for conversion, trespass to chattels, and fraud.
Regarding the bailment claim, the court held that in Washington (unlike Vermont), a person who finds a stray pet is under no obligation to return the pet instead of releasing it. Nor is there any general duty of care to return a stray pet such that the Linds could have been held negligent for failing to reunite Boo with its owners. The court also rejected the Damianos’ claim of malicious injury to a pet because there was no proof of either mailce or injury, as well as their claim of outrage, because the evidence was insufficient to prove either extreme and outrageous conduct or an intention to inflict emotional distress.
Because the neighbor admitted that he had trapped the cat and released it, however, the court held that the Damianos had raised sufficient questions of fact to merit a trial on their claims of conversion and trespass to chattels. Both of these torts, the court explained, require an act of willfull interference with a chattel, without any justification, that deprives the owner of possession or use. The court emphasized that these claims do not require a showing of bad faith or an intent to deprive, and held that Mr. Lind intentionally interfered with the Damianos’ right of possession by trapping Boo. Mr. Lind’s asserted justifications were found to be insufficient, as he failed to provide evidence that cats in general, or Boo in particular, were “specially injurious” to his property such that they could be considered abatable public nuisances, and he did not have the necessary state permits for trapping skunks or other wild animals.
The court also found that there was sufficient evidence to support the Damianos’ cause of action for fraud, as Mr. Lind falsely denied seeing a cat when Ms. Damiano confronted him about hearing Boo in his garage. The court held that Ms. Damiano had a right to rely on Mr. Lind’s statement that he not seen Boo and that she did, in fact, rely on this statement during the following weeks as she continued to search for her lost cat.