Your dog is more than a dog. He or she is like a child to you.
If you’ve lost a pet, you know how painful it can be – you’ve lost a member of your family.
Maybe someone was speeding down your street or was recklessly playing with a weapon – or maybe it was another dog – regardless, your beloved pet is now gone.
And suing someone or taking them to court may be an option for you.
Can you sue someone for killing or injuring your dog or other pet?
Very simply, yes.
You will likely have expenses to recover, but the part that is often fueling our need for justice is the fact that a valuable life was ended or impacted dramatically.
Know that these types of lawsuits can be complicated, so let’s take a look at some of the common issues surrounding them.
All states (and even counties within states) have different rules and procedures for how to handle lawsuits for animal companion injuries and death.
Before you get into a lawsuit, you should research the details of how your state handles these cases.
See the table of states with strict liability for dog bites from Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center.
If you meet with an experienced attorney, he or she should know the details of animal cruelty laws in your state and county.
Many courts do not give compensation to a pet owner in this situation other than the replacement cost of the animal.
The legal system often puts dogs and other pets in the “personal property” category, so they will award enough for you to go buy another dog, but nothing else.
There have been courts that have begun to recognize the fact that pets have more value to people than other property, so they are starting to allow for owners to collect compensation for emotional damages and even punitive damages if the injury or death had obvious malicious intent.
Take this case in Canada, for example:
In 2006, the Ontario court case of Ferguson v. Birchmount Boarding Kennels Ltd. (1) was the first Canadian decision, upheld on appeal, to award damages for mental distress associated with the loss of an animal. In Ferguson, the plaintiffs boarded their dog at a kennel while they were on vacation. The dog escaped from the enclosed play area by squeezing between 2 boards in a fence, and was never found. Mrs. Ferguson was emotionally distraught when she heard the news. She suffered from insomnia and nightmares, which required her to take time off work. The Fergusons sued the kennel for damages. The court held that the kennel had not taken reasonable steps to ensure that the fence was secure. Its negligence amounted to a fundamental breach of the boarding contract, such that the kennel could not rely on a waiver of liability that the owners had signed. The Fergusons were awarded $2527, which included $1417 in general damages for pain and suffering associated with the loss of the dog.
This case became the first of many to allow for the owner’s emotional damages (or pain and suffering) to be considered.
Consider how much you might win vs. legal fees you might have to pay
Depending on lawyer fees and court costs, you may spend more than you recover, so that’s also an important consideration. Sometimes lawyers will not take on these types of cases because they don’t often walk away with much.
If they do decide to take on your case, they may also charge you a flat fee, rather than charge you on a contingency basis. Make sure to clarify those details before you proceed with a lawyer.
If you can build a strong case for receiving more compensation, it’s possible to come out with several thousand dollars rather than a couple hundred just to replace your dog. Even though money will never give you back what you lost, it can be helpful for covering any expenses.
For this reason, make sure you keep a record of all of your out-of-pocket expenses (or consequential damages) related to the accident, such as: surgical procedures, veterinary bills, burial costs or therapy and on-going treatment. See a list of documents that can be helpful.
Determining the value of your dog
Because courts generally view a pet as a type of property, you’ll need to be very straightforward about the tangible value of your pet and have concrete evidence of all damages. Here is some helpful information and evidence to gather:
- Replacement cost – If your dog passed away, look up how much it would cost to get another dog. Be able to show proof of the current market value.
- Training/intelligence – Find record of any formal training your dog completed (obedience training, agility training, vocational training, etc.) and specific skills or tricks learned.
- Overall health – Ask your dog’s vet for medical records and even a statement on the overall health of your dog before the accident occurred.
- Breed – The breed of your dog, or whether it was full bred or mixed, could have a big impact on its value. Some breeds are rarer than others, so if your dog is AKC registered, have that documentation on hand.
- Cost of treatment – Keep paper records of any and all treatment for your dog, regardless of whether or not it passed away. Procedures and medications can be costly, so you’ll need and want to get compensated for those.
Recovery options for damages
There are three different approaches to take when you’re seeking compensation for the loss of your pet.
Each situation is different, so you’ll need to determine which approach is best depending on the details of your specific situation.
- Civil lawsuit
If someone has injured or killed your dog, whether it was on purpose or an act of negligence, you can file a civil lawsuit against that person. There has to be enough proof, though, to point to malicious intent or some degree of negligence in order to recover any damages.The type of compensation you receive and how much is allowed varies greatly depending on your state’s rules, so check with an experienced lawyer or your county clerk for specifics.
- Criminal lawsuit
A criminal lawsuit can be filed by itself or in addition to a civil lawsuit if the act was blatantly malicious and purposeful.If the personal responsible broke any animal anti-cruelty laws, they may be sentenced to some jail time, community service, and/or fined. You may also receive added compensation for emotional damages.
- Small claims court
If you’re not able to afford a lawyer, or decide you want to settle the matter without big court costs, you also have the option of small claims court. Some benefits to approaching it this way are:
- You can sue without a lawyer
- Cases are resolved much quicker
- The court clerk usually helps you walk through the process
The downside to small claims court is that you can only recover economic damages (or out-of-pocket expenses) but not emotional or punitive damages.
So, you can get compensated for any vet bills and the replacement cost of your pet, but the recovery stops there. There is also usually a limit to the amount you can sue for.
This amount also varies by state, so you’ll want to find out your state’s rules. Generally the maximum amount is between $2,000 and $10,000.
To read more on these options, see this article from the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Is it worth it?
Every case is different, but if your dog or other pet has been wrongfully injured or killed, it may be worth the legal fight.
NOLO has compiled a long list of case examples that range from an owner receiving $200 for the market value of his dog to an owner being awarded $30,000 for veterinary malpractice.
In order to understand the possible outcomes of your case, seek out legal help from an attorney who has experience with personal injury or property loss and who is familiar with your state’s laws.
Their job is to navigate the legal system and work to recover your losses so you can focus on grieving your beloved pet.
You may want to check out organizations like The Pet Loss Center in Texas for help grieving. Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to fully grieve because we rationalize that after all, this was a dog, not a human. But you know what? Your attachment to your pet was like that to another human – perhaps even deeper.
What if it was the other way around, and it was YOUR dog that attacked and killed another? See an insightful article from Petful.
Tell us, have you gone through this experience? What would you want others in your shoes to know?