A dog or cat is often considered a member of the family. Many people love their dogs more than their own relatives. And, as discussed in our article on liability for dog bites, in California the owner of a dog is responsible for damage caused by the dog hurting another person by biting him or her, whether that propensity was known previously or not. That is called “strict liability.”
The question arises as to whether injury to your dog or cat allows you to seek relief against the other dog owner or person hurting your dog or cat and what criteria applies. That is the scope of this article.
The Basic Law:
California classifies dogs, cats and, indeed, all animals, as the personal property of the owner. Therefore, unlike the law that protects a person from dog bite, a dog or cat is not afforded those same rights since a dog or cat is not a person but only “property.” While there are laws that prohibit cruelty to animals, those laws involve criminal sanctions and are available to the State to enforce, not the individual owning the dog or cat. A complaint may be made to the appropriate agency and they may take action, but that does not result necessarily in any recovery to the owner of the animal.
An injured dog or cat owner can sue under a property damage theory of liability. The interference with the property must be intentional or negligent. Liability is not the “strict liability” which applies to dog bites against persons. This means as the owner of the injured animal, you must prove that the other owner had notice of the dog’s vicious tendencies and/or either negligently or intentionally failed to control the dog, thus caused the injury or death of your pet, or acted in a manner that negligently or intentionally injured your animal, such as driving recklessly.
Assuming my dog Spot has never shown any aggressive tendencies and suddenly attacks and injures your dog, then I am not negligent and probably not liable for the damage. But if you can show my dog growled and sought to bite other animals in the past or routinely gets into dog fights, then I am probably liable.
The owner of the injured dog or cat can seek a reduction in the animal's market value as damages. The reduction of the animal's market value means the owner of the dog or cat will be compensated for the difference between the animal's market value prior to and after the injury. Further, the injured dog or cat owner can still recover reasonable and necessary damages incurred for the animal's treatment following the injury, including all medical, pharmaceutical, and boarding costs.
Note how limited the damages really are. If your dog is a “rescue” dog which is crippled by another dog, the reduction in value is nil. If you did not take the dog to the veterinarian, your damages are zero. The law protects expensive breeds of dogs and cats and little else aside from medical treatment.
To obtain damages for your own emotional reaction to the injury of the dog or cat is possible but not an easy task. A typical claim would be intentional infliction of emotional distress, but to prove that requires not only proof of the extent of your emotional distress but the state of mind of the owner of the attacking dog. You must show that he or she intentionally sought to cause you that distress. This is discussed in more detail in our Torts article.
Practically speaking, you would have to demonstrate truly outrageous conduct on the part of the owner coupled with injury to you that resulted in need for medical or psychological treatment. If you were upset but did not seek professional help, you are unlikely to recover any significant damages.
Although there is no actual ruling on whether intentional infliction of emotional distress damages are available to an owner whose dog is attacked by another dog, the California courts have given economic relief to animal owners whose pets are injured by other humans.
Therefore, it should be possible to get compensation if the injured dog or cat owner can prove the defendant's extreme and outrageous conduct caused his or her emotional injuries.
Killing a Dog May be Legal
As discussed in detail in our article on your own liability for your dog’s actions, 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. Refer to that article for details of that doctrine.
From a strictly legal point of view, relief is quite limited. Assume a drunken driver swerves onto the sidewalk and you jump out of the way but he kills your long-time pet that you adopted from the Humane Society ten years before, your companion of many years, one of the most important parts of your life. You could probably prove negligence and get recovery, but your recovery would be nothing since the dog had no “market value” either before or after the accident. Does that mean you obtain no relief at all for the loss of your beloved friend?
Assuming you were so upset you required medical or psychiatric help, you would have a claim but if not, you would have to prove that punitive damages are warranted against the driver and that is always a long shot. Most people just walk away, heart-broken but resigned to the fact that the law considers animals chattel.
But not always. One client of ours, losing her cat due to a neighbor woman leaving rat poison literally all over the neighborhood, decided that it was worth it to her to fight for a recovery and spent tens of thousands of dollars in fees and hundreds of hours of her time pursuing her case against the culprit. She did win, but it was a verdict of only about five thousand dollars since the cat was from the pound. Leaving the court room, the defendant yelled at her that she had forced the defendant to spend twenty thousand dollars for her attorney to defend the action and would never forgive her. Our client smiled and nodded and whispered to us that forcing her to spend that money was precisely the point of the legal action. “As far as I am concerned, I won. I can sleep tonight knowing that the woman who killed my pet suffered.”
But perhaps what pleased her most was the judge who went up to the defendant after the trial and commented he owned several dogs and if one had died from that poison he would have sued her as well. “You’re a menace,” he said as he went back to Chambers. Sadly, the law prohibited him from granting a larger verdict.