If someone injures or kills your pet, you should make a written demand for compensation. But if that doesn't work, your next stop will be court. Which, by the way, doesn't necessarily mean a side trip to a lawyer's office.
Where and When Lawsuits Are Brought
Be sure to look at small claims court as an option. In many states, you can sue for up to $10,000.
Find the small claims court limit in your state.
If your dog was particularly valuable, or the conduct of the other person particularly shocking, you may not be able to squeeze your case into small claims court. You'll have to go to "regular" court, which may be called superior, district, municipal, or circuit court (or some other name) depending on the state. There, you may need the help of a lawyer, especially if the other side is represented by one.
Wherever you decide to sue, act promptly. State law limits how long you have to start your lawsuit; usually, you must file within a year or two of the incident. You can find your state's rule by looking in the statute books under "statute of limitations" or "limitations" for torts. If you are suing the federal, state, or local government, you may have to act much more quickly. (See "Lawsuits Against the Government," below).
Lawyers and Fees
When you sue someone for a loss caused by careless or intentional conduct, you're suing for a "tort." Negligence (carelessness), malpractice, and intentional infliction of emotional distress are all torts.
A lawyer who takes a tort case usually charges what is called a "contingency fee." That means the lawyer doesn't charge by the hour, and instead agrees not to take anything unless you win. If you win, the lawyer gets 30% or more of the amount. Several states limit the percentage a lawyer is allowed to take.
That may sound like a no-lose proposition. But before you agree, be sure to do a couple of things:
- Find out who pays for "costs." Although you aren't paying lawyer's fees, the lawyer may expect you to advance money for fees charged by the court, investigation, and depositions.
- Get your fee agreement, including who pays for costs, in writing. A written contingency fee agreement is required by the law in several states (California is one); you should have one no matter where you live. If your lawyer isn't willing to put the agreement in writing, get another lawyer.
What to Prove in Court
When you get to court, you want to prove three things to the judge:
- The person you're suing injured your dog.
- The defendant's conduct was unreasonably careless, reckless, or intentional.
- You need a certain amount of money to compensate you for your loss (to figure out how much, see "Compensating the Dog Owner," above).
You'll want to testify about what happened. To bolster your testimony, you may want to bring:
- written statements from people who can back up what you say about the extent of your loss
- bills and receipts (bill of sale for the dog, veterinary bills, burial expenses) that show your financial loss
- witnesses who can testify about the incident or your financial loss or emotional distress
- evidence of your attachment to the dog and the effect its loss had on your life, if your dog was killed and you are asking for damages for your emotional distress
- evidence of the outrageousness of the other person's behavior, if you are asking for punitive damages.
Learn more about how small claims court works.
Lawsuits Against the Government
The government has broad powers to pick up, impound, and destroy dogs. But it must respect owners' constitutional ("due process") rights and, in most cases, give an owner notice and a hearing before taking action. If the government abuses its authority and wrongfully injures or kills your dog, you can sue. There are special rules, however, for suing the government. They vary from state to state, but you usually have less time to file a claim than you would have if you were suing a private person.
Typically, if you want to sue a city, county, or state government, you must first file a claim with it, within a very short time after the incident—in many places, just 90 or 100 days. You can get a claim form from the city or county clerk or the state attorney general. The city or county attorney, or the state attorney general, will review the claim and make a recommendation. Most claims are denied. Only after your claim is denied may you sue. If you go to small claims court, take the letter denying your claim with you.
If you want to sue a federal agency, you're going to need a lawyer. Suits against the federal government must usually be brought in federal district court, which has no small claims procedures of its own. The federal government cannot be sued in local small claims court without its consent.
Once you get to court, the issues and procedures are much the same as when you sue an individual: you must put a dollar value on your loss, and prove that the government is responsible for it.
Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo), shows how to prepare and present a winning small claims court suit.
Represent Yourself in Court, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo), explains how to conduct a civil trial without an attorney.