How One State Treats Injuries to Pets

States differ in how they treat injuries to pets. An in-depth look at the law of California provides insights about all states that regard dogs and cats as property. California permits a pet owner to recover the entire cost of reasonable veterinary medical treatment; the market value or replacement cost of the pet does not limit the amount that can be recovered. 

The traditional rule – no damages for non-economic losses

The old, traditional rule of damages for injuries to dogs is stated in California Penal Code sec. 491, “Dogs are personal property, and their value is to be ascertained in the same manner as the value of other property.” This law was passed in the 1800s. The same principle has been applied to cats and other animals.

The traditional rule says essentially that the responsible party must merely pay either the veterinarian bills or the replacement cost of the animal. For example, in Dreyer v. Cyriacks 112 Cal.App. 279, 297 P. 35 (Cal.App. 1 Dist., Feb. 28, 1931), the owner of “Peter the Great,” a dog who worked in the motion picture industry, sued an individual who fired a weapon in the direction of the dog owner’s automobile following a quarrel. Not knowing that the dog was in the vehicle, the man killed the dog. The court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting a new trial on the ground that the verdict of $100,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in punitive damages was excessive. The court said that the value of human lives and the value of dogs were not to be measured by the same standard:

“With reference to the question of the amount of the verdict, plaintiffs have cited us to an array of cases from thirty states of the Union and from England and Canada. But not one of them relates to the destruction of an animal. They all concern the death of or injury to human beings, and it is absurd to argue that in fixing damages the value of human lives and the value of dogs are to be measured by the same standard. As declared in section 491 of the Penal Code, “Dogs are personal property, and their value is to be ascertained in the same manner as the value of other property,” but certainly the value of a human life is not to be so determined. (112 Cal.App. 279, 284-285.) 

In a dog owner’s action to recover from a motorist who struck the dog with his automobile and, allegedly to put it out of its misery, then shot the dog, which was a 15-month-old purebred Weimaraner registered female, the court, in Wells v. Brown, 97 Cal. App. 2d 361, 217 P.2d 995 (4th Dist. 1950), affirming a verdict for the dog owner, held that the $1,500 verdict was supported by the evidence. The court pointed to the testimony of a witness that, among other things, the dog “would be worth from three to five thousand dollars.”

Example – economic losses awardage when dog is a producer of income

Income attributable to the dog is admissible on the question of the dog’s value. For example, experts testified that a performing dog could earn more than $100,000, and the court awarded $5,000 in compensatory damages. Mitchell v. Union Pac. R. Co., 188 F. Supp. 869 (S.D. Cal. 1960). In that case, a dog named “Pudsy” was being transported by railroad, and died from exposure to excessive heat. The owner sued the railroad and testified that the value of the dog exceeded $100,000. He also presented expert witnesses who testified that the dog could earn in excess of $100,000. This figure was based on the owner’s claims that the dog could give answers of problems in addition, subtraction, and division in any combination up to 20 by a number of barks. The owner further testified that (1) the only prompting given to the dog was his tone of voice, (2) the dog would bark the number of spots appearing on a playing card without signal except being shown the card, (3) the dog was six years old and had never been exhibited professionally but had been shown at a number of charitable shows in Ireland, and (4) the dog was known as the “wonder dog of Ireland.” The owner was awarded $5,000 in economic damages, which the court said was not excessive under the circumstances.

Changes in California law since the 1980s – full veterinary and mental anguish damages possible

The traditional viewpoint created a limit on recovery for the costs of veterinary medical treatment. In states like Florida, the traditional view began to change in the 1960’s. The Florida Supreme Court announced the following change in LaPorte v. Associated Independents, Inc. (Fla. 1964) 163 So.2nd 267, 269: “The affection of a master for his dog is a very real thing and … the malicious destruction of the pet provides an element of damage for which the owner should recover, irrespective of the value of the animal…”

In 2011, California joined a number of states that have removed the ceiling on the recovery of veterinary costs, The California case is Kimes v. Grosser (2011) __ Cal.App.4th __ (1st Dist. Div. 1); download a copy of the court’s opinion by clicking the link. In that case, the court stated:

“In this appeal, we are called upon to determine what damages can be awarded for a wrongful injury to a pet animal with little market value under these circumstances.  We hold that the owner can recover the costs of care of the pet attributable to the injury if the costs are found to be reasonable and necessary, and punitive damages if the injury is found to be intentional.”

Emotional distress damages, and damages resulting from loss of companionship, still cannot be recovered. McMahon v. Craig (2009) 176 Cal.App.4th 1502 establishes that a pet owner can not recover damages for emotional distress or loss of companionship based on a negligence which caused a dog’s death. (Id. at pp. 1506, 1509-1515.) In that case, the dog’s veterinarian provided negligent care for the dog. The court held: “Regardless of how foreseeable a pet owner’s emotional distress may be in losing a beloved animal, we discern no basis in policy or reason to impose a duty on a veterinarian to avoid causing emotional distress to the owner of the animal being treated….” (Id. at p. 1514.)

Intentional conduct by the wrongdoer, however, would enable the pet owner to recover damages for mental distress. In Katsaris v. Cook 225 Cal.Rptr. 531 (Cal.App. 1 Dist., 1986), the court held that dumping dead dogs into a ditch and pretending not to know what happened to them, after lawfully killing the dogs, can result in mental distress damages. That principle has been repeated in the more current cases such as Kimes v. Grosser (see above) and Plotnik v. Meihaus (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1590. 


Punitive damages

California Civil Code section 3340 provides that, “[f]or wrongful injuries to animals being subjects of property, committed willfully or by gross negligence, in disregard of humanity, exemplary damages may be given.” This is not support for mental distress, but rather a form of punishment for the defendant’s inhumane treatment of the animal. There also are criminal laws to prevent animal cruelty, but they are not discussed here because the focus here is civil remedies.

The law is changing

It appears clear that the law of damages is changing when it comes to pets injured in California. There have been a number of reports of settlements where substantial damages were awarded. Attorney Kenneth Phillips had a case in which a Los Angeles woman, afflicted with muscular dystrophy, suffered terribly when her companion dog was killed before her eyes. The claim was settled for an appropriate, five-figure amount of money, which was paid under a homeowner insurance policy.