What to do when your companion animal has been injured or killed


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?

Your first 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.

Should I talk to the person who injured my animal before I file suit?

Yes. Lawsuits 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 a court.

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 veterinarian.

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 Malpractice information.

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 same case.

How much can I sue for?

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 lawsuit?

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 you.

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.

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