Punitive Damages

California Civil Code section 3340 provides:

    For wrongful injuries to animals being subjects of property, committed willfully or by gross negligence, in disregard of humanity, exemplary damages may be given.

Courts have permitted punitive damage awards under specific circumstances. The cases provide examples: 

  • In LaPorte v. Associated Independents, Inc., 163 So. 2d 267, 1 A.L.R.3d 992 (Fla. 1964), the court permitted an award of punitive damages where the defendant was malicious and demonstrated an extreme indifference to the dog owner’s rights. A garbage collector’s threw the owner’s empty garbage can at or toward a miniature dachshund named Heidi. This happened after collecting the garbage. The court upheld an award of punitive damages, finding it obvious that the conduct of the collector, who laughed after throwing the garbage can, had been malicious and had demonstrated an extreme indifference to the dog owner’s rights.
  • In Levine v. Knowles, 228 So. 2d 308 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. 1969), the court said that, while punitive damages were allowable where a veterinarian’s negligent treatment led to the death of the dog owner’s dog, the amount awarded should bear some reasonable relationship to the amount of compensatory damages, which the court implied was to be determined in relation to the dog’s value of approximately $100.
  • In an action by the owners of a dog that suffered severe burns after being placed on a heating pad at an animal hospital and left there for a day and a half, the court, in Knowles Animal Hospital, Inc. v. Wills, 360 So. 2d 37 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. 1978), cert. denied, 368 So. 2d 1369 (Fla. 1979), affirmed a judgment against the animal hospital that included an award of $12,000 in punitive damages. The court declared that, on the evidence, the jury could, and no doubt did, view the neglectful conduct that resulted in the burn injury suffered by the dog to have been of a character amounting to great indifference to the property of the dog owners, such as to justify the jury’s award.
  • In Johnson v. Wander, 592 So. 2d 1225 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. 1992), a dog owner’s action to recover from a veterinarian for injuries suffered by her dog Coco when, after being spayed, it was left on heating pads for a long period of time and suffered severe burns, the court held that a jury question existed as to the veterinarian’s liability for punitive damages and damages for the owner’s mental suffering at finding out about her dog’s injury. 
  • In a dog owner’s action to recover from a neighbor, who shot and killed eight of the owner’s rat terriers, the court, in Mendenhall v. Struck, 207 Iowa 1094, 224 N.W. 95 (1929), reversing a “no-damage” judgment, stated that the owner had grounds to pray for both actual and punitive damages. After killing one adult dog, the neighbor entered the dog owner’s house against his wishes, drove two adults and five puppies out from the house, and shot and killed those dogs outside the house. Malice, the court said, does not necessarily mean spite or hatred; it means, the court continued, the doing of an actual wrong in itself without just cause or excuse.
  • In a dog owner’s action against a person who maliciously poisoned five of the owner’s dogs, killing three, the court, in Heiligmann v. Rose, 81 Tex. 222, 16 S.W. 931 (1891), held that a $75 judgment for the dog owner, not apportioned between actual and exemplary damages, was supportable. When the evidence, as it did in this case, justified a verdict for either actual or exemplary damages, or both, the court said, it would not presume that the finding of the jury was based on improper grounds.
  • In Wright v. Clark, 50 Vt. 130 (1877), the plaintiff’s dog was shot by the defendant when the dog pursued a fox across the defendant’s premises into a wooded area. The defendant testified that he had intended to shoot the fox but accidentally shot the dog. The trial judge properly allowed the jury to award punitive damages if it found that the defendant acted  purposely and recklessly, or without proper regard for the rights of the plaintiff.

California permits awards of punitive damages against corporations and other employers under specific circumstances. See Punitive Damages