Liability for Injury to a Dog

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A dog owner is usually entitled to compensation if someone injures or kills a dog intentionally or through unreasonable carelessness.

Dogs Injured Intentionally

Anyone who intentionally injures a dog is financially liable for the injury, unless there's a statute (like the ones that let a livestock owner protect animals from attacking dogs) to the contrary. (See "When Killing a Dog Is Legally Justified.")

EXAMPLE: Sonia is annoyed at her neighbor Julia's dogs, Labrador retrievers that sometimes chase her cat. The next time she sees the dogs, she gets out her old heavy-duty slingshot and lets fly. She hits one dog squarely on the ear, and it yelps and runs home, badly injured. There is no law allowing Sonia to do this, so she is liable to Julia for the cost of the injury to the dog. (How to figure this amount is discussed in "Compensating the Dog Owner.") But Julia may also be partly at fault for letting the dog run around the neighborhood, so the amount she can recover from Sonia may be reduced correspondingly. 

Here are some other examples of intentional injury to dogs, for which the dog's owner is legally entitled to compensation:

  • An angry neighbor poisons a dog.
  • A farmer shoots a dog, even though the dog isn't threatening livestock.
  • A thief takes a dog and sells it to a research lab.

In all these instances, the person could also be charged with a criminal offense. That's what happened to a Los Angeles postal carrier who shot and killed a dog that wasn't menacing him at the time, but had bitten him earlier. He was charged with cruelty to animals; the Post Office also agreed to pay for a funeral for the dog, complete with silk-lined casket. ("Post Office Plans to Pay for Slain Dog's Funeral," San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 29, 1989.)

Dogs Injured Through Carelessness

Someone who is unreasonably careless (the legal term is "negligent") and as a result injures or kills a dog is legally liable to the dog's owner.

What constitutes negligence in any given situation depends on the circumstances, and every situation is unique. It's hard to generalize about when someone will be held liable. But the basic question is always the same: did the person act reasonably, under the circumstances? If the dispute gets all the way to a lawsuit and trial, the question is given to the jurors to answer, based on the evidence they hear.

Here are some examples of negligence:

  • Animal control authorities pick up a dog and impound it. Not noticing that the dog is wearing a license tag, which means its owner could have been notified, an employee destroys the dog the next day.
  • An employee of a dog-walking service carelessly leaves a dog in a parked car on a hot day; the dog dies of heat prostration.
  • A man accidentally leaves rat poison out in his driveway, where he knows the dog from next door often lies; the dog eats the poison and becomes ill.

Often, of course, deciding whether or not someone acted unreasonably, and so may legally be at fault, is a tough question. In one case, federal government employees, trying to kill coyotes, spread poisoned bait in a field where hunters regularly took their dogs. They had the landowner's permission and posted some warning signs. When a hunter sued after his dog was poisoned, the court ruled that the government had acted reasonably. (Molohon v. United States, 206 F. Supp. 388 (Mont. 1962).)

If the Dog Owner Is Responsible, Too

It's only fair that a dog owner who is partly responsible for an injury share financial responsibility. States have two different ways of getting to this result.

Contributory Negligence States

A few states still follow the old legal doctrine of "contributory negligence." Under this rule, someone who sues and is the least bit at fault can collect nothing. The contributory negligence states are:

Alabama

District of Columbia

Maryland

North Carolina

Virginia

Comparative Negligence States

Most states have adopted the doctrine of "comparative fault" or "comparative negligence," which roughly means that if you sue for injury to your dog and win, your award is reduced in proportion to your fault. If you're one-third at fault, for example, you get one-third less.

EXAMPLE: Sally's dog Boo is hit by her neighbor Barry's car in the street. You can certainly argue that Sally partly caused the car accident by letting her dog roam the neighborhood. She may have even broken a law, if her town or state requires all dogs to be kept on leashes. Sally sues Barry in small claims court for her $200 veterinarian bill. The judge decides that Sally is 20% at fault and Barry is 80% at fault. The judge reduces the $200 verdict by 20%, and awards Sally $160.

In most comparative negligence states, if Sally were more than half at fault, she would get nothing. So if a judge or jury decided she were 49% at fault, her award would be reduced by 49%, but if she were 51% at fault, she would get nothing.

The owner's negligence affects the outcome of the case only if it contributed to the injury. An owner who carelessly lets a dog run loose, resulting in its being hit by a car, obviously contributed to the risk. But if the dog is picked up by animal control, and while there an employee maliciously kicks the dog and injures it, the owner probably wouldn't be considered at fault. At least in the legal sense, letting the dog run loose doesn't have anything to do with the deliberate and nasty act of the employee.

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