Wrongful Death of an Animal Lawsuit
Can You Sue for The Wrongful Death of Your Animal?
Pets are more than just animals living in our homes, they are part of our families. So in the event of a wrongful death, it’s understandable that a pet owner would seek some justice from the culprit. However, despite how much an owner can love their pets, the law generally treats pets like personal property. Therefore, unlike the legal protections a person has from a dog bite, a dog or cat is not afforded those same rights.
While there are laws that prohibit cruelty to animals, those laws involve criminal sanctions that the state enforces. The law punishes the malicious and intentional wounding or killing of an animal as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the case. However, in California it is legal to injure or kill a dog that is threatening your livestock or appears to be threatening another person or yourself. Nonetheless, that does not necessarily result in any recovery to the owner of the animal.
No one wants to think about their pet being hurt or killed. But in the event that it happens, and there’s negligence on someone’s part, you may be able to recover some damages. A veterinary bill to treat an injury is easy to attribute a dollar amount, but what would be a fair compensation for a death? Sadly, as aforementioned, our furry families are not considered people but property and hence can’t recover compensation based on a wrongful death, per se.
Some examples of the different kinds of damages an owner can indeed receive if their pet is wrongfully injured or killed include:
- Property Damage. The owner of the injured cat or dog can sue under a property damage theory of liability. The interference with the property, in this case the pet, must be intentional or negligent. For example, if a dog was injured or killed by another dog, the owner of the injured dog must prove that the other owner had prior knowledge of the dog’s vicious tendencies and/or either negligently or intentionally failed to control the dog, thus causing the injury or death of your pet, or acted in a manner that negligently or intentionally injured your animal.
- Fair Market Value. The owner of the injured pet can seek a reduction in the animal’s market value as damages. This means that the pet owner can be compensated for the difference between the animal’s market value prior to and after the injury. Like any other property, the fair market value of a pet is the amount that it would bring if it were sold on the open market. The law protects expensive breeds of dogs, with rescue dogs’ value often being zero.
- Cost of Treatment. The pet owner can also recover reasonable and necessary damages incurred for the animal’s treatment following the injury, including all medical costs. However, if the pet owner did not take the animal to the veterinarian, the damages would be zero.
- Punitive Damages. These are meant to punish the person causing the injury for their unacceptable conduct. However, negligence alone will not support a claim for punitive damages. The actions of the individual must show a malicious, willful, or reckless disregard for the rights of the animal and its owner. Their purpose is to punish the unacceptable conduct by the perpetrator.
- Emotional Distress. Though difficult, it’s not an impossible claim to make. To prove emotional distress requires proof of the extent of your emotional distress, along with the state of mind of the owner of the attacking dog and how they intentionally sought to cause that distress.
In 2012, a California Appeals court decided that emotional distress is a viable claim when associated with a dog’s injury. The appeals court found that California law allows a pet owner to recover for mental suffering caused by another individual’s intentional act that injured or killed the animal. The decision came from a 2009 lawsuit, where the plaintiff alleged they suffered emotional distress when the defendant injured their dog. A lower court jury awarded economic and non-economic damages to the plaintiff, which included medical bills for surgery and post-op care, and emotional distress.
If the pet owner was upset following the incident, but did not seek professional help, it is unlikely to recover any significant damages.
Let’s consider an example: Let’s say you were out one night on a walk with your 11 year old rescue mutt, which you love and consider part of the family. Suddenly, a drunk driver swerved into the sidewalk, and while you were able to get out of harm’s way, your dog did not and ended up being killed on impact. You could definitely prove negligence on the driver’s part given they were driving under the influence, but since your dog would be considered to have no market value, you wouldn’t be able to recover any damages in that regard.
Now, let’s assume you had to seek psychiatric help due to your emotional distress following the loss of your pet. In this case, you could have a viable claim. If you didn’t need and/or seek this help though, you’d have to pursue punitive damages against the driver, which are rarely awarded.
It’s a pet owner’s worst nightmare: you bring your pet into the vet and they don’t make it out alive. Similar to medical malpractice, you can sue a veterinarian for damages related to the injury of your pet if they commit malpractice.
To establish a viable claim, the aggrieved pet owner must prove:
- Duty of Care. The vet accepted the responsibility to treat the pet.
- Breach. The actions or inactions of the vet fell below the professional standard of care. This is the most difficult to prove.
- Proximate Cause. The deviation from the professional standard of care was the cause of the pet’s injury.
- Damages. There was some damage to the owner and not just the pet.
Even in cases of veterinary malpractice, the computation of damages for the loss of a pet will be based on the market value of the pet.
West Coast Trial Lawyers Is Here to Help
If you lost your pet due to someone else’s negligence, West Coast Trial Lawyers have experienced personal injury attorneys that will work tirelessly to ensure that you are getting the maximum financial compensation for the losses you have suffered, including medical bills, emotional distress, and “property” damage.
Call us today at (888) 520-4139 or email [email protected] to schedule a free consultation with our experienced, caring, and compassionate legal team.