Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


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Pets, Personal Property And Price, Part 3: What Damages Can Fido Sue For?

As we saw in How Much Is Fido Really Worth Part 2, damages – based on the “value” – of your pet dog could cap out at around $200, unless your dog happens to be an expensive pure breed or has extensive training like a seeing eye dog.  But could this always be the case?  What if someone killed your dog?

As the law stands now in Virginia, the question of whether you can recover damages for a pet initially turns on whether the act was intentional or due to negligence.  If someone negligently injures or kills a pet, the owner cannot recover damages for emotional distress.  This very scenario came up in 2006 in the Virginia Supreme Court case, Kondaurov v. Kerdasha.  Ms. Kerdasha was driving on Route 110 in Arlington County when her jeep was struck in an accident caused by a tour bus being driven by Mr. Kondaurov.  Fortunately, Kerdasha did not suffer major injuries, but she was horrified to learn that her dog, Sushi, to whom she was very attached, had been ejected from the jeep during the accident.  Sushi ran down Route 110 into a neighboring residential area, where she was finally found, with an injured tail that needed to be partly amputated.

Kerdasha sued Kondaurov for negligence, claiming damages in part based on injuries caused to Sushi.  Kondaurov agreed that he was negligent, but fought Kerdasha on damages.  A jury awarded Kerdasha $300,000 in damages, and Kondaurov appealed, claiming that Kerdasha was not legally entitled to that amount.  When addressing the damages related to Sushi, the Virginia Supreme Court acknowledged Kerdasha’s strong bond to Sushi, and the fact that people often form bonds with their pets akin to a parent-child relationship.  But the Court stood by the fact that Virginia – just like the majority of states – still considers pets to be personal property.  Because Virginia law has never allowed recovery for emotional distress resulting from negligently inflicting injury to personal property, the Court refused to award damages based on Sushi’s injuries.  In support of its position, the Court included a footnote with a string cite of cases from a number of states that likewise refuse to allow damages for emotional distress for injury or death caused by ordinary negligence.

But that same footnote in the Kondaurov opinion left open a window for intentional acts.  In that footnote, the Court cited cases from Florida, Idaho, Kentucky and Louisiana allowing recovery of damages for emotional distress for pets injured or killed by willful, intentional or outrageous torts.  So if a Virginia court was confronted with a person who intentionally killed a pet, would the court allow recovery of damages?  We came close to finding this out in yet another Arlington County case involving Buster, a twelve-pound Chihuahua.

Jeff Nanni and Maurice Smith lived together for years with six well-loved dogs, one of whom was Buster.  On one unfortunate day in 2007, Nanni and Smith got into a fight, and Nanni took Buster into his arms.  Smith hit Nanni and Buster repeatedly with a wooden board.  Nanni rushed Buster to the vet, but Buster died of his injuries on the way to the animal hospital.  An autopsy revealed that Buster died of blunt force trauma to the head.  Smith was arrested for assault and battery and animal cruelty.  He later pled guilty and received ten days in jail and one year of unsupervised probation.

After the criminal case, Nanni sued Smith civilly for severe emotional distress based on that incident when Smith beat him and Buster.  Nanni sought at least $15,000 in damages for Buster’s worth to Nanni – not just based on the traditional “replacement value,” but based on Buster’s “unique value” as a companion animal.  Unfortunately, the case never progressed to the point of getting an answer about whether Nanni could recover for Smith’s intentional beating and killing of Buster.  Before the case could be tried, Smith filed for bankruptcy, and the parties ended up resolving their differences in bankruptcy court.

As attractive as it may seem to create law in Virginia allowing for damages if a person intentionally harms or kills a pet, it may also end up being a case of “be careful what you ask for.”  If the law allowed tort and punitive damages for a pet, veterinary malpractice insurance carriers would undoubtedly respond by hiking up premiums, and the hospitals and vets would respond by hiking the cost of services.  Would the change in the law be worth that risk?


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Pets, Personal Property And Price, Part 2: How Much Is Fido Really Worth?

As we saw in Part 1, pets are personal property in the eyes of the law.  But what does that mean about the true value of a pet?  For starters, let’s go back to Virginia Code Section 3.2-6585, which says that “all dogs and cats” are “deemed personal property.”  This code section goes on to say that dogs and cats may be the subject of larceny and malicious or unlawful trespass.  Section 3.2-6585 also grants an “owner” the right to sue if their cat or dog is killed, injured, unlawfully detained or unlawfully used, and the right to recover damages in the amount of the “value thereof or the damage done thereto.”  [For more on “owners,” see my post, “So What Are My Responsibilities as a Pet Owner?”]

So what in the world does “value thereof or the damage done thereto” mean?  Often courts consider this to be the pet’s “replacement value,” which could fall right around $200.  There is some support for this figure when you look at Virginia’s larceny laws. 

In Virginia, the line between petit larceny (a misdemeanor) and grand larceny (a felony) is only $200.  Virginia Code Section 18.2-97 (yes, in the Crimes against Property Chapter) makes it a felony to steal a dog, horse, pony, mule, cow, steer, bull or calf.  Larceny of poultry, swine, sheep, lamb and goats could also result in a felony.  Conspicuously missing from the list are cats.  This could be why Section 3.2-6585 says dogs and cats “may” be the subject of larceny.  Even if stealing a cat didn’t result in grand larceny, there is no reason it would not constitute petit larceny.  And although stealing a dog is a felony, the crime carries a maximum of 10 years in prison — compared with the maximum of 20 years when someone steals $201 of clothing or jewelry from a store.

Yet another statute that throws around the $200 figure is Section 18.2-102, dealing with the unauthorized use of animals, aircrafts, vehicles or boats.  Unauthorized use results in a felony if the value of animal, aircraft, vehicle or boat is $200 or over, and a misdemeanor if the value is under $200.

Section 18.2-97.1 makes it a misdemeanor to remove a dog’s electronic or radio transmitting collar in order to prevent finding the dog.  Although it is unclear, I would hope this includes removing a microchip.  This section also talks about “value,” giving a court explicit authority to order restitution of the “actual value of any dog lost or killed as a result of such removal” and “for any lost breeding revenues.”

For those of you in Prince William County, Prince William County Code Section 4-22 gives you the right to sue if your dog is injured or killed on your property by another dog that did not have permission to be there.  Damages would be – you guessed it – the “value thereof or the damage done thereto.”

Can the “value thereof or the damage done thereto” really max out at about $200?  If your dog is not a particular breed or does not have particular training, this certainly could be the case.  However, a property owner has always been able to testify about the value of his or her property, and this should not be any different for dogs.  A person with an expensive pure breed or a dog with extensive training, such as a service dog or protection dog, should be allowed to establish the value of their dog by showing how much they paid for the dog and the dog’s “replacement value,” including any unique characteristics or training.

Even if you own a mutt and are limited to something like $200 for actual damages, what if someone intentionally killed your pet?  Could you sue for emotional distress or punitive damages?  If you’re interested in these questions, stay posted for Part 3.

As a final note, what about the line between grand larceny and petit larceny?  The $200 mark is not just for animals.  It is the same for any stolen item – money, jewelry, a car or a boat.  It has been so since 1980.  Is it time for that to change?  If you want more info about this threshold, take a look at this 2008 Power Point presentation by the Virginia State Crime Commission.


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Pets, Personal Property And Price, Part 1: Is Fido A Pampered Pooch Or Mere Personal Property?

According to the law, pets are personal property.  For instance, Virginia Code Section 3.2-6585 says that “all dogs and cats” are “deemed personal property.”  Many people find this unacceptable, and want companion animals to have a much more meaningful legal status.  As unsatisfactory as the law may seem, defining pets as personal property isn’t all bad.  And the law has added many features for pets that elevate them above mere personal property.

There are many examples of cases that show that pets, although “personal property,” have a legal status all their own.  Two vivid examples of very different approaches to how the law treats pets can be found in Maryland and Florida.

In Calvert County, Maryland, Judge Graydon S. McKee III was confronted with two spouses in a divorce arguing over who should be able to keep Lucky, a beloved Lhasa apso – ShihTzu mix.  Judge McKee held a hearing, where the husband and wife each argued who looked after Lucky, and who had more time to spend with her.  The hearing revolved around Lucky’s and the owners’ best interests – much like a custody dispute and much unlike property division.  In the end, Judge McKee ordered Lucky to spend six months at a time with each spouse.  To read more about this, take a look at this Baltimore Sun article, Split Custody of Dog Recognizes Changing Role of Family Pets.

In Pinellas County, Florida, Judge Henry J. Andringa was faced with a “custody” battle between Florida and Louisiana residents.  The Florida residents had adopted a Saint Bernard and a German Shepherd mix from the Pinellas Humane Society, which rescued the dogs after Hurricane Katrina.  After the original owners in Louisiana got back on their feet, they sued to regain ownership of the dogs.  Judge Andringa decided that he will rule based on straight property law and ownership, and not by conducting an analysis of who will be better caretakers for the dogs.  For more on this story, read this North Country Gazette article, Judge Rules Dog Personal Property in Katrina Custody Case.  These two Katrina dogs are not the only ones involved in a “custody” battle.  A recent thought provoking documentary, “Mine,” discusses the many former owners trying to be reunited with their pets after Hurricane Katrina.

This raises important points for rescues, shelters and pet owners.  First, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, there has been a well needed focus on pets in emergency preparedness plans.  Make sure that you have thought this through and are ready to care for your pet in the event of an emergency.  As an example, take a look at the City of Alexandria’s Pet Emergency Preparedness Plan.  Second, if you are a rescue or shelter taking in animals, be sure to get paperwork making it very clear that owners surrendering dogs are relinquishing any rights to the animals, including property rights.  While it may feel unnecessary in the wake of an emergency as horrific as Hurricane Katrina, the absence of such paperwork can create emotional roller coasters like the Pinellas County Florida case after the fact.

So if the law considers pets to be personal property, how much is Fido really worth?  For answers to that question, stay posted for Parts 2 and 3 of Pets, Personal Property and Price.