When someone is liable for an injury to your pet, you’re probably devastated and angry. And if you’re like most people, you want to be compensated for your loss. If it’s only a matter of a vet bill to treat the injury, the amount of that loss should be easy to calculate. But what would be fair compensation if your pet died, or you had to watch it suffer? While most Americans treat their companion animals like members of the family, the law generally treats them like personal property. Still, the rules vary from state to state when people sue over a pet’s injury or death. Courts in most states limit the compensation to the owner’s economic losses. But in cases involving deliberate or malicious wrongdoing, some states allow courts to award compensation for the owner’s emotional suffering or extra money as a form of punishment.
When your dog or cat has been hurt, your first expense is usually for veterinary care. The person responsible for the injury will probably be liable for those bills. But courts usually allow compensation only for “reasonable” treatment. The question of what’s reasonable depends on several factors, including the extent of the injuries and the animal’s age and general condition.
If the vet bills were particularly high for an older pet, some judges may find that the owner is entitled to no more than the amount of the animal’s fair market value (more on that below). But many courts have rejected that approach. For instance, a Kansas court found that owners of a 13-year-old dog were entitled to reimbursement for reasonable vet treatment needed to get their pet back to its former condition (Burgess v. Shampooch Pet Industries, Inc., 131 P.3d 1248 (Kan. Ct. App. 2006)). As an Illinois court explained, the owners of a seven-year-old dachshund had demonstrated how much their pet was worth to them by paying nearly $5,000 in vet bills after it was mauled by a neighbor’s Siberian husky. So they were entitled to compensation for the full amount of the bills rather than only the dachshund’s $200 market value. (Leith v. Frost, 899 N.E.2d 635 (Ill. Ct. App. 2008).)
Whenever your animal has been injured, keep records of all bills for treatment, medication, and hospitalization to use during negotiations or at trial. You probably won't be paid back for the time you took off from work to care for the dog or take it to the vet, but it can’t hurt to keep a record of that time if it has been extensive.
There are three different ways that courts generally measure an animal’s economic value: fair market value, replacement value, or the special value to the owner.
Because dogs or other animals kept for breeding are essentially business assets, their monetary value may include the lost potential revenue (as in the McDonald case). But judges may stick to the replacement-value standard, reasoning that the owner can get another animal that will generate the same income.
For most pet owners—whose dogs or cats don't win prizes or collect stud fees—the real worth of their companion animals can’t be measured by what someone else would pay or what it would cost to buy a replacement. Lawmakers in a few states have begun to recognize this fact. In Tennessee, pet owners may recover non-economic damages (up to $5,000 in 2017) as compensation for the loss of “companionship, love and affection” in certain cases when their pets have been killed intentionally (and illegally) or through negligence (Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-17-403). And a few courts have found that sentimental value could be one element in an animal’s actual value to the owner if it doesn’t have a meaningful market value (see, for example, Jankoski v. Preiser Animal Hospital, Ltd., 510 N.E. 2d 1084 (Ill. App. 1987)). However, when judges recognize the sentimental value of pets, it’s usually in the context of compensating the owner for out-of-pocket treatment costs that exceeded the animal’s market value (as discussed above).
So far, at least, courts in most states follow the traditional view that owners aren’t entitled to recover non-economic losses for sentimental value or lost companionship when their pets are killed through negligence (see Strickland v. Medlen, 397 S.W.3d 184 (Tex. 2013) and Barking Hound Village, LLC v. Monyak, 787 S.E.2d 191 (Ga. 2016)).
Some owners try to get around the limitations on compensation for the value of a pet by suing those responsible for their animals’ loss (the defendants) for the mental suffering the owners experienced. Whether they're successful depends partly on where they live and the nature of the actions that led to the injury or death.
Courts in most states don’t allow claims for emotional distress when defendants were simply negligent (see, for example, Kaufman v. Langhofer, 222 P.3d 272 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2009)). But a distressed pet owner may have more success when the defendant acted maliciously or meant to make the owner suffer (what’s known as “intentional infliction of emotional distress”). In a particularly egregious case, a Washington appellate court found that a cat’s owner was entitled to $5,000 for the sleeplessness, depression, and other emotional distress that she experienced after three boys maliciously set her cat on fire (Womack v. Von Rardan, 135 P.3d 542 (Wash. Ct. App. 2006)).
Generally, people can sue for two types of mental distress: first, the shock and distress caused by seeing an accident or mistreatment, and second, the grief and long-term effect the loss has on their lives. The more outrageous the conduct of the person being sued, the more likely the court is to award compensation for emotional distress, and the larger the award is likely to be. Proving mental suffering is not always easy. But pet owners can testify about how they felt when their pets were killed and how the loss disrupted their lives. If they sought medical treatment or psychological counseling, that will strengthen the claims.
When a court orders someone who injured or killed a pet to pay the owner, that money is intended to compensate for the economic (and sometimes emotional) loss. In some states, courts may also award “punitive damages” intended to punish the wrongdoers for outrageous or deliberate actions. For example, California law specifically allows these awards (known in that state as “exemplary” damages”) for injuries to animals “committed willfully or by gross negligence” (Cal. Civ. Code § 3340).
Punitive damages may be especially appropriate in animal cases, where compensation is likely to be low. As a Minnesota court explained, if compensatory damages don't make it worthwhile to sue, the wrongdoing will go unpunished unless there are punitive damages (Wilson v. City of Eagan, 297 N.W.2d 146 (Minn. 1980)).
Historically, it’s been difficult to get adequate compensation for the extent of the loss when someone hurts or kills your beloved companion animal. But the law in this area is developing as more judges and juries recognize the special role that pets play in their owners’ lives. So if you find yourself in this situation, consider speaking with a lawyer. A personal injury lawyer or an attorney who specializes in animal law should be able to explain how local law and recent court decisions apply to your case, whether you could ask for punitive damages or damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and the amount of compensation that you might expect to receive.
You might also consider filing a claim in small claims court, which provides a relatively simple way to resolve small disputes without a lawyer.