Courts Wrestle with Damages When Pets Are Injured

Furry, scaly or feathered companions are nearly a given in most American homes. It is estimated that 68 percent of all American households own pets, and in 2017 these households spent over $69 billion on food, vet care and more for their beloved beasts. Clearly an injury to a pet can be traumatic and expensive for owners, especially if it was caused by the negligence of another party. Consider these legal options.

Criminal charges: There are criminal laws against animal cruelty in all 50 U.S. states. If you believe there was willful and malicious intent to injure or kill your pet, animal cruelty laws might apply. Immediately file a complaint with local law enforcement and provide as much detail as possible. If charged and found guilty, perpetrators of animal abuse can serve jail time and be held responsible for damages.

Civil action: You may also be entitled to monetary damages in civil court if someone negligently injures or kills your animal companion regardless of whether it was intentional or accidental. In these cases, you are generally entitled to the “market value” of your pet. Pets are considered property, and a market value is assigned based on a number of factors, including but not limited to:

  • Pedigree
  • Purchase price of animal
  • Special abilities, training or awards
  • Age and general health

You may also recover the veterinary costs incurred while caring for your pet after the injury.

Emotional Distress: Legal descriptions aside, we all know that pets are not mere personal property. They become beloved friends, companions and part of the family. Over the years, pet owners and animal advocacy groups have pushed the courts to recognize emotional distress after a pet is negligently injured or killed. One recent case of note involved a 2012 lawsuit filed by a family in California after a neighbor attacked the family dog with a baseball bat. The injuries were so severe that surgery was required. The family was awarded veterinary costs as well as damages for emotional distress.

However, most courts have followed years of precedent and ruled against recognizing emotion-based damages in animal injury cases. In the recent case of a dog that was accidentally euthanized, The Texas Supreme Court said: “We acknowledge the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed. Relational attachment is unquestionable. But it is also uncompensable. We reaffirm our long-settled rule … Pets are property in the eyes of the law, and we decline to permit non-economic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings.”

Visit the Animal Legal Defense Fund for more information on what to do if your companion animal has been wrongly injured or killed.

10 Steps to Follow After a Pet Injury

Aside from the pain, an injured pet will most likely be confused or scared. Take these 10 steps immediately after your pet is hurt:

  1. First and foremost, be aware that injured pets may even bite or scratch their owner. Pain and fear can make your pet unpredictable.
  2. Perform any examination slowly and gently. Stop if the pet becomes more agitated.
  3. If necessary, muzzle your pet – but NOT if it is vomiting.
  4. Call your veterinarian or emergency vet clinic before you arrive so they can prepare.
  5. Stabilize any injuries if you can with splints, bandages, etc.
  6. Transport the animal in a carrier to prevent additional injuries.
  7. Keep your pet’s medical records accessible and bring them with you. Take copies on vacation as well.
  8. If your animal has been mistakenly or deliberately injured or killed, take pictures. Include wide shots of where they were found and close-ups of injuries. Ask your veterinarian to document all injuries.
  9. Following your veterinary visit, contact law enforcement. Report the incident and ask them to come to the scene. Get contact information for any and all witnesses.
  10. If your animal has been killed, ask your veterinarian to perform a necropsy to determine cause of death.

This comprehensive Pet First Aid brochure from the American Veterinary Medical Association can be printed, filled out and kept with your pet’s medical records in the event of an injury. Download here.


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