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Suing for the Wrongful Death of a Pet

Can You Sue for the Wrongful Death of Your Pet in California?

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 pets, those laws involve criminal sanctions that the state enforces. The law punishes the malicious and intentional wounding or killing of a pet 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 pet. 

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. 

If you have lost your pet due to the negligence of another party, you may be entitled to file a personal injury claim for damages. At West Coast Trial Lawyers, our qualified personal injury attorneys are readily available to offer legal assistance. We will review your case to determine what necessary courses of action should be taken to get you the justice and compensation you deserve.

To schedule a free consultation, please contact our 24/7 legal team by calling 213-927-3700 or filling out our quick contact form

Available Damages

Some examples of the different kinds of damages an owner can indeed receive if their pet is wrongfully injured or killed include:

  • Property Damage. If a pet has been injured or killed, the owner can sue under a property damage theory of liability. The owner must show proof that the damages were done intentionally or negligently. 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. The injured dog’s owner could also prove that the other owner either negligently or intentionally failed to control the dog, thus causing the injury or death. 
  • Fair Market Value. The owner of the injured pet can seek damages for the decrease in the pet’s market value. This means that the pet owner can receive compensation for the change in market value before and after the pet’s 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 pet’s treatment following the injury, including all medical costs. However, if the pet owner did not take the pet to the veterinarian, the damages would be zero. 
  • Punitive Damages. These are meant to punish those who cause injury due to their negligent behavior. The plaintiff must show proof of any malicious, willful, or reckless actions that were intentionally inflicted onto the owner and his or her pet. The purpose of punitive damages is to bring in consequences for the unacceptable behavior done 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 made the decision to count emotional distress as a viable claim when a pet injury is involved. The appeals court discovered that California law permits a pet owner to recover compensation for enduring mental anguish due to another individual’s intentional act of harming or killing their pet. The decision was brought up in a 2009 lawsuit, where the plaintiff alleged they were suffering from emotional distress because the defendant injured their dog. A lower court jury awarded the plaintiff with economic and non-economic damages, which included medical expenses 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.

Veterinary Malpractice

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 took on the responsibility of taking care of the pet. 
  • Breach. The vet’s performance did not meet the professional standard of care. This is usually difficult to prove.
  • Proximate Cause. Not providing a professional standard of care was the main cause of the pet’s injury.
  • Damages. Both the pet and the owner experienced damages from the lack of proper care given by the vet.

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.


According to SB-225, if a pet is killed or injured due to intentional or negligent actions committed by the owner or another individual, the person at-fault will be charged with up to $4,000 in non-economic damages. Furthermore, if the death of the pet was caused by another party, damages will be granted only if the death occurred on the pet owner’s or caretaker’s property or while under the supervision of the pet owner or caretaker.

West Coast Trial Lawyers Is Here to Help

If you lost your pet due to someone else’s negligence, our expert team of personal injury attorneys at West Coast Trial Lawyers will help you recover compensation for damages you have suffered. This includes medical expenses, lost wages, emotional distress, pain and suffering, and more. 

Contact us today by calling 213-927-3700 or filling out our contact form to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with our knowledgeable, caring, and compassionate legal team.   

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