Compensating the Owner When a Dog Is Injured or Killed

How much is a dog worth?

"Easy," says the dog owner. "My dog is priceless."

Not so fast, say the courts, which deal in terms of economic value. Most pets couldn't be sold for much, if anything. The benefits a pet provides—companionship, laughter, security—are noneconomic and unique.

Nevertheless, some states allow pet owners who have lost a valued companion to collect only the "market value" of the dog—a wholly inadequate measure. In other states, a court may let a dog owner recover damages for "sentimental value," "intentional infliction of emotional distress," or "mental suffering." These legal theories are all attempts to compensate owners for the hard-to-quantify, emotional loss they feel when they lose a pet.

Depending on the circumstances and state law, a dog owner may be able to convince a court to order the person responsible to pay for:

  • costs of treatment if the dog is injured
  • market or replacement value of the dog
  • sentimental value of the dog
  • emotional distress, and
  • additional money damages to punish the person responsible.

Cost of Treatment

When a dog is injured,  the person responsible for the injury can be found legally liable for  the veterinarian's bills.

Generally, courts allow the owner to be reimbursed only for "reasonable" treatment.  A dog owner probably can't expect to recover $10,000 for extensive surgery of an 16-year-old dog if the veterinarian says the dog is likely to die soon anyway. But just because a dog is advanced in years doesn't mean that expensive treatment is never justified. In 1988, a New York court approved an award of $300 for antibiotics and suturing of an aged, arthritic, and partially deaf dog that had been injured by another dog.

If your dog is 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.

Market or Replacement Value

All dogs have a market value—that is, a price they would bring if sold on the open market. That may not be much, but whatever it is, the dog's owner is entitled to it if a dog has been killed. Some courts award the dog owner the amount it would cost to replace the dog, instead of the dog's market value. This replacement value is likely to be a larger amount.

Factors to be considered in computing market value include the dog's:

  • purchase price
  • age
  • health
  • breed
  • training
  • usefulness, and
  • special traits or characteristics of value

Here are two examples of how that translates into dollars in the real world:

  • An Illinois couple's show dog was run over by a visitor's car in their driveway. The dog was severely injured and had to be destroyed. In small claims court, the owners testified that the one-year-old dog had cost $200 as a pup, had appeared in four dog shows and won first prize in each, and had been sired by an international grand champion. The court awarded them the $500 they had requested. (Demeo v. Manville, 386 N.E.2d 917 (Ill. App. 1979).)
  • The owner of an injured dog was awarded $200, in 1975, for the market value of the six-year-old pedigreed dog. The amount was based on the dog's age, purchase price ($125–$150), the relatively long life of the breed, training, and desirable (but unspecified) character traits. "A good dog's value increases rather than falls with age and training,"  the court commented. (Stettner v. Graubard, 368 N.Y.S.2d 683 (1975).)

Sentimental (Special) Value

Surely an owner's affection for and attachment to a dog—not the market value—is the greater loss when a dog is killed. Some states have laws explicitly recognizing this fact. Rhode Island, for example, allows evidence not only of the market value of an animal but also its "actual value to the owner." Tennessee allows someone whose pet is killed by the negligence of someone else to recover up to $5,000 in damages as compensation for the loss of the pet's "society, companionship, love and affection." (R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-23-1; Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-17-403.)

In the other states, it's up to the courts. Some do not allow sentimental value to be considered; they stick to market value. A Minnesota court, for example, cited an 1890 court ruling that because pets are property, market value is the proper measure of the owner's loss.  (Soucek v. Banham,  524 N.W.2d 478 (Minn. App. 1994).) Other courts give up because of the difficulty in putting a dollar amount on the loss: "It is impossible to reduce to monetary terms the bond between man and dog," said one, limiting a dog owner's recovery to the cost of veterinary treatment. (Zager v. Dimilia,  524 N.Y.S.2d 968 (Vill. Ct. 1988).)

Some courts, however, have been willing to give it a shot. In a veterinary malpractice case in California, a jury awarded the owner of a dog $10 for the dog's market value—and another $30,000 for its special value. California law allows such an award if an item has "peculiar value" to the owner, and the person who harmed it knew that fact. ("California dog owner awarded $39,000 in veterinary malpractice suit,"  American Veterinary Medical Association News  (April 15, 2004).

An Illinois court compared the loss of a dog to the loss of other unique and irreplaceable items, such as family heirlooms or photographs. Because these objects, which are not bought and sold, have no meaningful market value, the court ruled, damages are measured by their "actual value to the owner." (Jankoski v. Preiser Animal Hospital, Ltd., 510 N.E. 2d 1084 (Ill. App. 1987).)  Other courts reject this reasoning. (For example, see  Daughen v. Fox,  539 A.2d 858 (Pa. Super. 1988).)

Evidence of special value can be as simple as testimony about the importance of the dog in the owner's life. If the owner is cut off from family or friends, lives alone, or is unusually dependent on a dog, a court is more likely to figure in sentimental value.

Emotional Distress

Some courts have recognized that "a pet is not just a thing but occupies a special place somewhere in between a person and a piece of personal property....To say it is a piece of personal property and no more is a repudiation of our humaneness." (Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital, Inc.,  415 N.Y.S.2d 182, 97 Misc. 2d 530 (1979).)

This change in attitude is shown by courts' willingness to let people sue for the mental anguish they suffer when they lose a pet because of malicious or extremely reckless acts. The legal theory is similar to the one that lets people sue when a child or spouse is injured; they can sue not only for lost income, but for the emotional anguish the death triggers.

The law in this area is still developing, and its boundaries are unclear. Some states' courts (West Virginia's, for example)  do not allow claims for mental suffering. Other states impose various limitations. In some places, to recover for mental anguish, the person must see the injury take place, or suffer physical injury, or require medical treatment. The rules change constantly as courts refine—or, just as often, confuse—them.

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 larger the monetary award is likely to be. Proving mental suffering is not always easy. But the person suing can testify about how he felt at the death of the pet and how the loss disrupted his life. If the person sought medical treatment or psychological counseling, that will strengthen the claims.

The best way to get a feel for what the rules are is to look at some actual cases:

  • A family was awarded $1,000 for the mental anguish they suffered when their nine-year-old dog died of heat prostration after state agency employees in Hawaii left it in an unventilated van in the sun. (Campbell v. Animal Quarantine Station,  632 P.2d 1066 (Hawaii 1981).)  
  • A landlord in Hayward, California, agreed to pay a ten-year-old boy $5,000 for the emotional distress the boy suffered when he had to give up his dog. The landlord had violated the city's rent control ordinance by evicting the boy's family, and the dog was not allowed in their new apartment.
  • A family sued and won $13,000 after their dog was seriously injured in a Florida animal hospital and subsequently had to be destroyed. The dog had been left on a heating pad for almost two days without care, and was severely burned. The court allowed the jury, when it decided on how much to award the family, to consider their mental pain and suffering. (Knowles Animal Hospital, Inc. v. Wills,  360 So. 2d 37 (Fla. App. 1978).) Later, another court ruled that such a recovery was not permissible under state law, which requires a physical injury before emotional injuries can be considered. (Kennedy v. Byas,  867 So. 2d. 1195 (Fla. App. 2004).)
  • A New York judge gave $700 to a woman who, at her dog's funeral, opened the casket and found a dead cat inside. The animal hospital where the dog had died apparently didn't give the dog's remains to Bide-A-Wee, the organization that arranged the funeral. The judge found that the owner had suffered shock, mental anguish, and despondency due to the loss of the dog's body, and was deprived of her wish for an elaborate funeral and the right to visit the dog's grave. (Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital, Inc.,  415 N.Y.S.2d 182 (1979).)
  • An Oregon woman who asked a vet to humanely destroy her dog, which had been shot and was in extreme pain, was awarded $4,000 for her mental anguish when she discovered that the vet had not euthanized the dog, but had given it away. Her worry about what her children would go through when they found the dog living with someone else justified the jury verdict, an appeals court ruled. (Fredeen v. Stride,  525 P.2d 166 (Or. 1974).)  She was also awarded $700 in punitive damages.
  • A judge refused to allow a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in a case where an Alaska couple's dog was impounded and mistakenly killed. The couple went to retrieve the dog, which they could see chained in the back of the pound, but employees said the shelter was closed and refused to release the dog. When the couple went back the next day, the dog had been killed. These circumstances weren't severe enough to warrant an emotional distress claim, the trial judge ruled. (Richardson v. Fairbanks North Star Borough,  705 P.2d 454 (Alaska 1985).)
  • A Pennsylvania appellate court threw out a claim that a veterinarian had intentionally or recklessly caused dog owners severe emotional distress. The veterinarian, looking at an X-ray of another dog, told the owners that their dog had to be operated on; it was, and later, when the true cause of the dog's illness was discovered, it was too late to save the dog's life. The owners claimed the veterinarian tried to conceal his mistake from them. The court ruled that the primary misconduct was directed at the dog, not the owners. (Daughen v. Fox,  539 A.2d 858 (Pa. Super. 1988).)
  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court noted that "[l]abeling a dog 'property' fails to describe the value human beings place upon the companionship that they enjoy with a dog," but nevertheless refused to allow a woman whose dog had been shot and killed by police to sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress.  (Rabideau v. City of Racine,  No. 99-3263 (Wis. 2001).)
  • A woman whose pet horses were sold for slaughter by the people who boarded them was allowed to sue for the intentional infliction of emotional distress in Kentucky. (Burgess v. Taylor,  No. 1999-CA-002262 (Ky. App. 2001).)

Damages as Punishment

When a court orders someone who injured or killed a dog to pay the dog's owner, that money is intended to compensate the owner for the economic and emotional loss, not to punish the wrongdoer. If the actions were outrageous or deliberate, however, the judge or jury in a civil lawsuit may assess "punitive damages" against the wrongdoer. Punitive damages are like a fine, except that the money is paid to the other side in a lawsuit, not to the government. They are added on to the amount the dog owner gets as compensation for the loss of the dog.

Punitive damages are given only when someone has caused injury intentionally or recklessly. They may be especially appropriate in animal cases, where compensatory damages are likely to be low. As a Minnesota court pointed out, if compensatory damages don't make it worthwhile to sue, the wrongdoing will go unpunished unless punitive damages are given. (Wilson v. City of Eagan,  297 N.W.2d 146 (Minn. 1980).)

Here are some examples:

  • A jury awarded punitive damages against a man who hit a dog in the head with a large rock, giving the dog convulsions and a concussion. A New York appeals court ruled that the malicious act justified punitive damages. (Rimbaud v. Beiermeister,  168 A.D. 596, 154 N.Y.S. 333 (1915).)
  • An appellate court did not allow punitive damages against a city animal shelter that picked up a woman's dog and mistakenly sent it to a research laboratory, where it was killed. The court ruled that the shelter must pay the owner $5,000 in compensatory damages, but not the extra $5,000 the jury had awarded in punishment. Why? Because, the court said, the shelter had been merely careless—it had sent the woman's dog to the lab after a day, even though it was required to keep animals for three days—but it had not acted willfully or recklessly. (Schade v. Cedar Rapids Animal Shelter,  409 N.W.2d 716 (Iowa App. 1987).)
  • Punitive damages were allowed against a Minnesota animal warden who killed an impounded cat although he knew that a city ordinance required that it be kept five days. The warden killed the animal simply because the city had no facilities to take care of it—showing, in the words of the court, "a willful disregard for both the law and the property rights of private citizens." A jury awarded the cat's owner $40 in compensatory damages and $2,000 in punitive damages. The appeal court reduced the punitive damages to $500. (Wilson v. City of Eagan,  297 N.W.2d 146 (Minn. 1980).)

Lawsuits against a government agency.  Many states do not allow punitive damages against a city government unless a state law specifically authorizes it. Individual public officers, however, are liable for punitive damages just like other individuals are. (Smith v. Wade,  461 U.S. 30 (1983).)

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