The death or personal injury of a pet can be emotionally devastating, but in most jurisdictions pets are considered to be property and have no other value in the courtroom. This often comes as a shock to pet owners who seek compensation for their loss. Currently, lawsuits involving injuries to pets are treated as property damage cases, but the tide is slowly turning in favor of pets and the people who love them.
We have laws against animal cruelty, so it seems reasonable to assume that this crime against a pet could lead to a personal injury lawsuit, just as assault against a human can. In fact, there are many areas of the law where disharmony between criminal vs. civil issues and pet vs. people issues can be very confusing and counterintuitive.
Pain and Suffering
Cruelty implies that pain and suffering must be involved. Even though animal cruelty is against the law and caries a criminal penalty, the pain and suffering of the animal is not considered relevant in civil court. However, if you are present and witness the event that causes the pain and suffering of your pet, or if the pain and suffering of the pet is found to be extreme and grotesque, you may be entitled to compensation for your own emotional trauma. In a few rare cases, if the person who caused the pain and suffering acted with extreme malice and obviously intended to inflict pain and suffering upon the animal, the courts will award punitive damages to discourage the behavior in the future.
Loss of companionship
Most people think of their pets as family members or companions, so it naturally follows that “loss of companionship” would be an important element when a pet is killed intentionally or by negligence. There have been a few cases where the courts acknowledged and awarded damages for loss of companionship when a pet was killed, but most do not.
Another very confusing issue is medical malpractice. Veterinarians are required to go to medical school and be licensed through a process almost as stringent as that for human doctors. Medical malpractice lawsuits against veterinarians are not at all uncommon. What most people are not aware of, however, is that these lawsuits are very different from malpractice suits against human doctors. Like human medical malpractice, compensation may be granted for any associated medical expenses, but that is the only real similarity. From there, the only compensation available is for the replacement value of the animal.
The idea of treating pets merely as property does not sit well with many people. Even in some cases where loss of companionship was denied, the court has included in its decision that while it could not grant loss of companionship based on the law, the law itself was somehow lacking in not providing a more appropriate designation for pets than mere property.
Some cities and states have changed pet laws to use the term “guardian” in place of “owner,” and legislation replacing the term “pet” with “companion animal” has been drafted for consideration in many areas.
People spend more money now than ever on luxury items for their pets. Trends such as birthday parties, daycare, and play dates for pets show a recent shift in the way we view and treat our pets.
As these small legal changes and large social changes stack up, it is inevitable that lawsuits involving injuries to pets will change as well. Even today, though most courts still treat pets as property, you may be compensated for your own pain and suffering along with other damages that are not usually associated with simple property damage cases.
If your pet has been injured or killed, your recourse is probably limited, but it might be worthwhile to speak to an experienced personal injury attorney.