Our pets are often considered family members. As such, they provide companionship, love and joy. Human owners build a strong emotional bond with their pets and grieve their loss. When the loss is due to negligence or an intentional act, the owner is especially taken back and looks for justice. Companion animals have long been recognized as necessary for many owners, which has a special place in terms of animal loss.
In a human wrongful death, justice is often meted out in a wrongful death lawsuit. In California, pets were always considered property, and an owner would only be able to file a lawsuit asking for the cost of replacing the pet. Times have changed somewhat. Today, California’s law has shifted in the pet owner’s favor and lawsuits filed against a person who inflicts harm on the pet.
Are Pets Considered Property in California?
In California and in many other states, pets are considered property similar to household items. This categorization takes sentience out of the equation and treats the animal as nothing more than a chair or couch. Bills have been introduced trying to modify this concept.
California Legislature Bill 3341.5
California Civil Code SB-225 Section 3341.5 deals with civil liability in pet (domesticated dog or cat) death or injury. It says if a pet’s death or damages are caused by the negligent or intentional acts of a person or the animal of another, the person or owner of the animal is liable for no more than $4,000 in non-economic damages. For this rule to be active, the injury or death must occur on the pet owner’s property or its caretaker.
Non-economic damages in this bill refer to the expected companionship, society, affection and love of the animal. It is applicable in incorporated areas with a population of a minimum of 75,000 people.
Other Countries Acknowledge a Pet’s Rights as a Sentient Being
While animals’ role as property has not changed in the United States, other countries have made changes to their civil code. For instance, in France, an update to the civil code amended its 300-year-old system and called animals protected property and living sentient beings. The value of the animals exceeds their mere existence.
Valuating a Companion Animal
The following is considered in the valuation of a companion animal:
- The fair market value of the companion animal
- The age of the companion animal at its demise
- The animal’s health
- The training the companion animal received
- The animal’s usefulness
- The companion animal’s characteristic traits
The Cost of a Companion Animal
The cost of the companion animal differs according to the pedigree of the animal. For instance, those with a championship background are worth hundreds to thousands of dollars, while mixed breeds are monetarily worth much less. Pet owners may consider this an unfair evaluation and spend many thousands of dollars on the animal’s maintenance over the years.
When a court orders someone who injured or killed a pet to pay the owner, that money is intended to compensate for the economic (and sometimes emotional) loss. In some states, courts may also award “punitive damages” intended to punish the wrongdoers for outrageous or deliberate actions. For example, California law specifically allows these awards (known in that state as “exemplary” damages”) for injuries to animals “committed willfully or by gross negligence” (Cal. Civ. Code § 3340).
Punitive damages may be especially appropriate in animal cases, where compensation is likely to be low. As a Minnesota court explained, if compensatory damages don’t make it worthwhile to sue, the wrongdoing will go unpunished unless there are punitive damages (Wilson v. City of Eagan, 297 N.W.2d 146 – Minn. 1980).
When the defendant intentionally or negligently inflicted harm on a companion animal, causing the owner emotional injury, the defendant may face punitive damages under California Civil Code 3340. Punitive or exemplary damages do not compensate the animal’s owner but punish the defendant for gross negligence or willful actions. The use of punitive damages helps keep the same or similar actions from happening in the future.
Certain elements are taken under consideration when determining the amount of punitive damages, such as:
- The malice that existed
- The wealth of the defendant
- The amount of the monetary award needed to punish the defendant
- The pain and suffering by the owner
- The sentimental value of the companion animal
Pursue Justice with a California Wrongful Death Lawyer
David understands the love and affection an animal’s owner has for their pet and the suffering the owner experiences when their pet is negligently or intentionally hurt or killed by another. For now, the justice a pet owner can command for their beloved companion animal is limited in California. However, things are changing, and the sentience of animals is being accepted in many quarters.
If your companion animal has been hurt or killed, reach out to us by calling (800) 991-5292. We will do what the limits of the law allow in obtaining the compensation the owner deserves.