On August 17, 2011, Robin Lohre asked Posh Maids to clean her home. During the several hours it would take to clean the house, Lohre needed to run errands. Lohre made sure with the employee that her dog, Ruthie, could stay in the house during the cleaning. Lohre asked the employee not to let Ruthie out of the house, and gave careful instructions of how to go in and out of the mudroom if she had to go outside. Lohre then went to run errands with her six-year-old daughter.
Posh Maids called Lohre to tell her they were able to finish the cleaning a little ahead of schedule because additional employees arrived. Lohre and her daughter came home to find Ruthie dead under the dining room table. Lohre called Posh Maids, and was told that Ruthie was hit by a car, ran back home and was “whimpering a little.”
Lohre sued Posh Maids for negligence and emotional distress for failing to inform her about Ruthie’s accident and leaving Ruthie without veterinary care. This week, Lohre secured a judgment of more than $65,000 in a precedent-setting law suit brought by The Animal Law Center in Colorado.
When Lohre left Ruthie in Posh Maids’ care, this arguably created a bailment – much like when you leave your car in a garage or you check your coat at the theater. But there is one major difference – unlike your car or coat, companion animals are living beings who require care, including emergency veterinary care.
People entrust their companions with groomers, boarders and doggie daycares every day. If you are entrusted with others’ animals, you could face a scenario similar to Posh Maids. Take a look at the following questions and answers in order to prepare yourself in the event of an emergency.
Question #1: Does the relationship between you and the animal amount to a “bailment”?
A “bailment” arises when a person temporarily gives control over or possession of personal property to another for a designated and agreed upon purpose. If you are providing services for a companion animal and the animals’ owner leaves the animal in your care, you are involved in a bailment.
Question #2: To what degree are you responsible for an animal left in your care?
In Virginia, “owners” are tasked with providing adequate care to companion animals under Virginia Code Section 3.2-6503. This involves providing adequate food, water, shelter, space, exercise, care and veterinary care. The definition of “owner” is quite broad – including “any person who: (i) has a right of property in an animal; (ii) keeps or harbors an animal; (iii) has an animal in his care; or (iv) acts as a custodian of an animal.”
In addition, Virginia Code Section 3.2-6518(A) specifically holds groomers and boarding establishments responsible for the care provisions of Section 3.2-6503. Failure to care for the animal properly is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to twelve months in jail and a $2500 fine – much steeper than the $250 fine an owner faces for the same violation.
Question #3: If an emergency arises, are you responsible for getting the animal to the vet?
Yes. Plain and simple. The answer to this question is undoubtedly yes. You may or may not be liable for the vet bill, but don’t let that hold you back from getting immediate veterinary care for the animal. Section 3.2-6518 also specifies that groomers and boarding establishments must provide emergency veterinary care in the event of illness or injury.
Question #4: Are you also responsible for the vet bill?
Generally speaking, bailees, such as groomers and boarders, are liable for their own negligence. Section 3.2-6518 clarifies that the bailor/owner is liable for emergency veterinary costs, unless the animal sustained injury because the groomer or boarding establishment accidentally or intentionally failed to care for the animal adequately, or if the injury resulted from the groomer’s or boarding establishment’s actions. That code section does not require the groomer or boarder pay for treatment of injuries caused by the animal’s self-mutilation.
Question #5: Is there anything else I need to know?
If you are a Virginia boarding establishment or groomer, make sure your business and your contracts are in full compliance with the care and very specific notice requirements imposed in Section 3.2-6518 and Section 3.2-6519. If you are unfamiliar with these notice requirements, please take a look at this earlier post.
To fully protect your business and any animals in your care, make sure that you have a clear policy for your employees to follow, and an open line of communication with your clients and local veterinarians in the event of an emergency.
The Posh Maids case is a good reminder of your responsibilities and liability as a bailee. Equally significant is the fact that this case allowed damages for negligence based on the loss of a companion animal. Virginia law still does not allow damages for negligence, but there may be a door open for intentional torts or gross negligence. Stay posted for recent developments on this front in Maryland.