For people who travel frequently (or at least used to) and have a pet, part of planning a trip involves finding someone to look after their canine or feline family members while they’re away. Deciding a place to board their pets can be stressful, weighing things like who will be caring for the animals, how much it costs, and whether there’ll be some sort of nanny cam where you can check in on your furry friend.
If you’re someone who deals with the kind of anxiety where you always think about the worst-case-scenario in any given situation, you’ve probably already considered (and worried about) what might happen if your pet dies while in someone else’s care. What are your legal rights in that situation? What kinds of laws apply? What happens when a case like this goes to court? We spoke with several attorneys and an animal behaviorist to find out.
How are pets viewed under the law?
There’s no easy way to say this, but in most cases, pets are considered property. “Under common law applied in most of the United States, pets are considered property, just like a car or a watch or an item of clothing,” Morghan Richardson, family law partner at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, tells Lifehacker.
And according to Ryan Reiffert, a business, corporate, and transactional attorney in San Antonio, Texas with the Law Offices of Ryan Reiffert, PLLC, because of pets’ status as property, their humans would have the same legal remedies as they would in situations where any other piece of property was damaged. Typically, he says this means that in court, a pet won’t be worth much more than what you paid for it, or the money you spent on training.
If a pet is injured while in someone else’s care, its owner can recover the cost of “repairs,” which in this case would be veterinary and other expenses needed for the pet to recover, according to Thomas J. Simeone, a personal injury attorney at Simeone & Miller, LLP who has extensive experience with cases involving injured pets. In situations where the pet cannot be saved, he explains, their owner is entitled to the “cost” of the pet on the date of the negligence—determined by researching the value of similar breeds of dogs of the same age and sex.
What about emotional damage?
But surely, it’s widely understood that pets are frequently considered part of a human family—that has to make a difference, right? Nope. “Generally you cannot get emotional distress damages,” Reiffert tells Lifehacker. “I wish it were otherwise—my rescue dog is incredibly dear to me, basically like a child—but that’s generally the law.” Along the same lines, Simeone says that people with pets are not legally entitled to recover damages for pain and suffering—either their own or the pet’s—because the pet is considered “personal property” and not a living thing.
There is a chance, however, that this approach could change. According to Richardson, in recent years, some courts in the United States have indicated a willingness to acknowledge that pets—though not human—are fundamentally different from other forms of property. “The close relationship that many owners have with their pets simply isn’t the same as the feelings people have about their clothes or their cars,” she explains. “But this new approach, which could allow pet owners whose animals were killed at a kennel or daycare to pursue claims for emotional distress, for example, has not yet been adopted.”
How could situations like this even happen?
Russell Hartstein, an animal behaviorist and trainer and the founder of Fun Paw Care, LLC, has served as an expert witness in cases where dogs have been injured or killed in a daycare or boarding facility. As someone with experience in both animal behavior and running a dog training and daycare business, Hartstein says he’s all too familiar with the types of facilities where pets’ safety is compromised. “I am keenly aware of the inherent flaws within these volume-based business models, most of the time run by ‘professionals’ with no certifications or credentials in the field of animal behavior,” he tells Lifehacker.
Dogs are dyadic in nature, Hartstein explains—meaning they thrive in one-on-one playgroups that are structured specifically for their breed, size, energy level, age, sex and personality temperament. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, dog boarding facilities and daycares are dangerous for a dog,” he says. “And [pet] parents misunderstand, [thinking] that their pet is happy, when the pet is actually stressed. Most dog health, emotional, physical, medical and behavioral problems occur at kennels and dog daycares.”
What legal issues are involved?
People have a right to have someone supervise their pets while they’re away, David Reischer, an attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com, explains. The daycare, kennels, or boarding locations then assume a duty of care for the pets in their custody, which includes responsibilities like providing food and water, taking pets to vet appointments, administering medicine if necessary, taking dogs out for a walk, and providing companionship, Reischer says.
If a pet is injured or killed while in the care of a boarding facility of daycare, the pet sitter may be responsible for compensating the pet’s person as the result of a civil lawsuit. “The law treats all pets like property, and the damages that result from an injured or killed pet would be monetary damages,” Reischer explains. “Legal theories for damage to property include conversion, trespass to chattel, or the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Unless the injury or death to the pet was intentional, then criminal charges likely cannot be brought. However, some states do have ‘animal cruelty’ laws for when a person intentionally, maliciously, and purposefully hurts an animal.”
What has to be proven in court?
If a pet is injured or killed while in someone else’s care, that duty of care has been breached as a result of negligence or reckless behavior. When cases like this are brought to court, first there should be an evaluation and analysis of the specific facts surrounding why the pet was injured or killed, according to Reischer. “If a pet were killed while at a kennel or daycare, its owner must prove first that the kennel or daycare failed to exercise a reasonable standard of care, and second, that their failure resulted in injury or the death of the pet,” Richardson explains. “The same legal standard would apply to a dry cleaner who lost or badly damaged your clothes, or an auto repair shop that ruined your car.”
Ultimately, Reischer says that the law does not afford much protection to pets that are killed while in the care of another person. “There is a higher duty of care owed by veterinarians to a pet than most other sitters, but even a pet that is killed while in the care of a veterinarian is a very difficult lawsuit to bring,” he explains. “A person that brings a pet to another person for care unfortunately takes on significant risk that the law does not compensate if the pet is killed.”
Should you hire a lawyer?
Over the years, several people have contacted Simeone after their pet was injured or died while it was being boarded. “Each time, I explain that they can only recover the cost of any treatment, or the ‘value’ of the pet on the date of [their] death, they are upset,” he says, noting that this can also be the case in situations where pets have been attacked by other pets.
Typically, though, Simeone says that he isn’t brought on for cases like this, because the damages a person is entitled to doesn’t justify retaining an attorney. Instead, they attempt to resolve the case themselves, through small claims court or out-of-court negotiations. In other words, look into the cost of an attorney before hiring one for this particular type of case.
What to do before boarding your pet
Obviously, you never want to leave for a trip preparing for something truly awful to happen to your pet while you’re away, but there are a few things you can do before your departure that might help. First, Reischer recommends taking/having some photographic record of your pet’s health before dropping it off for daycare or boarding (which is also handy to have anyway, in case your pet gets lost). If it’s a case where you’re looking to be reimbursed for damages, having “before” pictures could be useful.
Also, in light of the limited damages available to people whose pet has been injured or died in someone else’s care, Simeone says that legally, the best thing to do is to pick a kennel or pet-sitter carefully. “With limited legal recourse, prevention is the best policy,” he says.