Shipping Dogs by Air: Airline Liability Limits

Air carriers limit their liability for injuries to dogs they ship.

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Whenever you ship a dog by air, you run the risk that the dog will be injured. What you may not realize is that unless you buy extra liability coverage for a dog, and something does happen to the dog, you may get stuck with the airline's decision about how much it will pay for your loss—no matter how much you lose.

How Liability Limits Work

Airlines limit their liability for loss, delay, or damage to baggage to the minimum required by the federal government, which is currently $3,300. The only way around this limit is to declare (before the flight) a higher value for your baggage and pay an additional fee. Remember, your dog is classified as baggage (carry-on or excess) unless you ship it air cargo. Similar liability limits also apply to air cargo.

If you suffer a loss of more than $3,300, and the airline refuses to make it good, you can challenge the liability limit in court (including small claims court, if the amount you're asking for is within your state's small claims court limit). In general, for a liability limit written in fine print to hold up in court, the passenger must have had:

  • notice of the limit, and
  • an opportunity to declare a higher value for the baggage.

Notice of the limit. If, as a passenger, you honestly have no reason to know about a liability limit, it isn't reasonable to bind you to its terms. If the liability provision is buried in the fine print on the back of a ticket (or available only in an obscure place on the airline’s website), a court might rule that you weren't given adequate notice.

But if you're familiar with flying and with baggage liability limits, and you had your ticket days or weeks in advance, you will probably be held responsible for knowing the limit. The same is true if you were notified in some other way—by a conspicuous sign on the ticket counter, for example, or by an airline employee.

A chance to declare a higher value for the baggage. The airline must also give you a fair opportunity to declare a higher value for your dog, and pay a correspondingly higher shipping fee. If it didn't, you won't be held to the liability limit.

Most airlines do allow passengers to declare a higher value for baggage. To find out how much the added liability coverage will cost, ask the airline. (See "Getting Extra Coverage," below.)

EXAMPLE: In 1983, Thomas Deiro shipped nine racing greyhounds by air from Portland to Boston. The airline left the dogs in their cages on a baggage cart in the sun, in 97° heat, during a stopover in Dallas. Seven of them died, and the others were injured. Deiro sued American Airlines for $900,000.

The court awarded him $750, the liability limit at the time.

The court analyzed the factors discussed above and upheld the airline's baggage liability limit. It reasoned that Deiro, who was an experienced traveler and regularly shipped dogs by air, should have declared a higher value for his greyhounds. "We find it difficult," the court stated, "to imagine how any passenger with Deiro's experience, planning to check a quarter of a million dollars worth of baggage, could have had more opportunity or incentive to familiarize himself with the baggage liability provisions." (Deiro v. American Airlines, Inc., 816 F.2d 1360 (9th Cir. 1987).)

Getting Extra Coverage

If you don't want to abide by an airline's liability limit, you can either pay for a higher limit from the airline or buy insurance from a private insurer. If you're shipping economically valuable dogs, it will be worth your while to investigate. You can find out how much the airline charges by getting a copy of the airline's "contract of carriage," which is available online or at the ticket counter.

To get a higher liability limit, you must declare that the dog's value is over the liability limit. The airline will charge you a higher fee, and if anything happens to the dog, you will be covered for the value you declared. For example, say you are shipping a show dog worth $10,000 as excess baggage, and the airline limits its liability to $3,300. Before the trip, tell the airline that you want to declare a higher value on the dog. The airline will charge you an extra fee based on the $6,700 of excess declared value.

The airline may limit the amount you can declare to a few thousand dollars. Above that amount, you will have to talk to private insurance companies well ahead of time to get coverage.

The same goes for air freight. Airlines limit their liability to about $9.07 per pound. Say you're shipping a 100-pound dog as air freight. The dog and carrier together weigh 125 pounds. So unless you declare a higher value, the airline's liability is limited to $1,133.75 (that is, $9.07 x 125 pounds).

How to Figure Your Losses

If the dog is injured or killed during air travel, you must put a dollar amount on your loss in order to make a claim to the airline. If your dog performs in races or shows, it may be relatively easy to put a dollar value on your claim. But if you got your dog from a shelter, and its value is emotional rather than economic, what must the airline pay you in damages? It's a difficult question, and the answer seems to be changing as more courts become willing to take into account noneconomic factors.

Lawsuits over such incidents are bad publicity, and an airline may be willing to settle a suit rather than go to trial. American Airlines agreed to pay $15,000 to the owner of a dog that died in transit. The dog had been left in the cargo hold of an airplane—in 115-degree heat—when the plane was delayed on the runway for more than an hour (HSUS News, Vol. 40, No. 3, p. 33 (Summer 1995).)  When the owner sued the airline, it first offered just $1,250, the standard amount for lost baggage at that time. ("Dog Who Died in Airplane's Hold Is Defined as Luggage by a Judge," New York Times, Feb. 16, 1994.)

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