What to do when your companion animal has been injured or killed
WRONGFUL DEATH OR INJURY OF
ALDF Suggests: What to do when your
companion animal has been injured or killed
Incidents of animal abuse may be presented to the courts in two ways:
- Via criminal charges, which can result in jail time
These charges are brought on behalf of the state (or city) by the local prosecutor.
- Via civil suit, for the purposes of gaining monetary compensation
These suits are brought by the citizen victim(s), who is often, but not necessarily, represented by a private attorney.
If someone has
injured or killed your animal companion, you may be entitled to damages–regardless
of whether the animal was injured or killed on purpose or accidentally–so long
as the conduct was at least negligent. When an animal is injured or killed, you
are generally entitled to compensation for the “market value” of the animal,
veterinary bills and possibly punitive damages, mental anguish, and loss of
companionship. What compensation is available depends entirely on the facts and
circumstances of each case, and differs significantly from state to state.
What is the first thing I should do after
my companion animal is injured or killed?
priority should obviously be the care of your animal companion. If she is
injured, take her to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Ask the veterinarian
to carefully document the findings of the examination. Also ask the
veterinarian if she would be willing to testify as to the results. Request
copies of your animal companion’s treatment record from any and all vets
involved with her care.
If your animal
has been killed, since you do not need to rush to the veterinarian, you should
take time to complete as many of these actions as possible:
1. If possible, before moving your animal companion, take
pictures of her in the exact spot and position in which she was injured or
killed. Pictures may be very helpful and valuable. If you do not have a camera,
and time permits, draw a sketch of the scene of the incident.
2. Get names, addresses and telephone numbers of any
witnesses to the incident.
3. If time permits, obtain statements from witnesses to the
incident about what they saw.
4. If possible, get a statement from the person or persons
who injured or killed your animal companion.
5. If your animal companion was killed, take her body to a
veterinarian for a "necropsy," a detailed examination to establish
cause of death. A necropsy is very important if you choose to file a lawsuit,
even if you think the cause of death is obvious. Some states require a necropsy
in order to file a suit. Ask the veterinarian performing the necropsy if she
would be willing to testify as to the results if necessary.
talk to the person who injured my animal before I file suit?
are expensive, time-consuming, and there is no guarantee you will win, or that
the financial recovery will be greater than the amount of time and money you
put into the case. So, if you are on speaking terms with the other party, call
that person before you file your suit and try to work out a settlement. If
necessary, show them copies of the police reports and veterinary or other bills
and see if they will at least pay those. Do not threaten them.
Do laws relating to
damages for wrongful injury or death of an animal differ from state to state?
Yes. The law in the state and county in which your animal is
injured or killed will determine what legal remedy is available. Most states do
not have a specific "law" regarding the type or amount of
compensation available to a person whose animal is wrongfully injured or
killed. This lack of direction means the amount recoverable may vary from one
judge to another–even in the same courthouse. Procedures that allow individuals
to recover for injuries to their animals will also vary.
The law in this area is developing as courts change their
views of the value of companion animals. While you can generally get some idea
of the kind of compensation available in your state from judgments in previous
cases and other information, only a lawyer can clearly interpret the present
potential for recovery.
How long do I have to
file a court action?
Time limits to file your action are called "statutes of
limitation." The length of time varies, and depends on the facts of the
case. For example, you may have a longer time to file a lawsuit for injury
caused by a professional, such as a veterinarian, than an accidental or
intentional injury caused by a private individual. If your case is against a
public employee or a public entity such as the police or the department of
animal regulation, the time period to file may be shorter, sometimes as short
as three months. In those public entity cases, you may need to file an
"administrative claim" before you can file a lawsuit. You may be able
to get this information from the agency you want to sue, but you are probably
better off contacting a lawyer or trying to research the issue yourself.
These time limits are very strict. If you miss either the
filing deadline for an administrative claim (where that is required) or a
lawsuit, it is almost certain you will never be able to bring your complaint to
What do I sue for?
This depends largely on the state you are in and on the
current status of the law regarding recovery for injury to animals in that
state. There are a number of different legal theories you can use to obtain
compensation for injuries to animals. If the injury was serious enough so that
it is financially worthwhile, you may be able to get a lawyer to take your case
and advise you of the best way to proceed.
There are four basic legal theories that may be used to
recover damages for injuries or death of an animal:
1. Negligence–where the injury occurred because of the
carelessness, forgetfulness, or omission of another person. Examples would be
automobile or other "accidents."
2. Intentional acts–where the injury occurred at the hands
of someone who meant to cause your animal harm. Examples are malicious acts of
mischief, beatings, or other harmful acts. In extreme cases where "legal
malice" can be shown, "punitive damages" may be awarded.
Punitive damage awards can be very significant.
3. "Bailment"–anytime you leave your animal with
another person for some kind of care or treatment, a "bailment" is
created. If anything happens to your animal while s/he is with that other
person, you can usually sue for the injuries. Generally, bailment cases are
much easier to win for animal owners. Examples are groomers, "day
care" facilities, and veterinarians. Note, however, in some cases, the
courts have decided that a bailment action cannot be brought against a
4. Veterinary malpractice–laws pertaining to veterinary
malpractice differ from state to state and may have many, or only a few,
similarities to the issues discussed here. Please see ALDF’s Veterinary
Note that these theories are not mutually exclusive; that
is, you may be able to sue for both negligence and an intentional act in the
How much can I sue
This is one of the aspects of the field of animal law cases
that is constantly changing. The amount of monetary damages recoverable in a
lawsuit, assuming you win, varies from state to state and even from judge to
judge. The following damages may be recoverable:
1. The "market value" of the animal, that is, the
amount it would cost to purchase a replacement animal.
2. The value of the animal to you, as determined by a court
based on any number of factors (type of animal, length and quality of
relationship, other special qualities of your animal).
3. Emotional distress based on the experience of watching
your animal get injured or killed. (This is the most difficult to recover,
although some courts are finding ways to provide such an award without openly
acknowledging that is what they are granting.)
4. Punitive damages for malicious acts.
How do I start my
Depending on the type of damages you request (see above),
and the laws in your state, animal damages cases can require complex legal
procedures. It would be in your best interests to hire a lawyer to represent
If you cannot find, or afford, an attorney to take your
case, another option is to file a lawsuit in small claims court. Small claims
courts are designed to be "user friendly" for non-lawyers. In fact,
many states’ small claims courts prohibit lawyers. However, small claims courts
also limit the total amount of damages you can claim and the types of damages
for which you can sue. For example, small claims courts do not generally allow
claims for emotional distress, or punitive damages. Additionally, these courts
may not be aware of new developments in the law which favor larger economic
recovery for injuries to animals.
To file a small claims suit, contact the court clerk in the
county in which your animal was injured or killed for instructions. The book Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court
by attorney Ralph Warner is an excellent resource for do-it-yourself small
claims court actions. It’s
available for purchase from Nolo Press.
For more detailed legal information pertaining to damages
and recovery, please see ALDF’s Animal Damages Memo.