Pets and the Law, Part 3: Pet Owners Get Done Doggy Style

Alright, so by now we’ve covered how Fido is most definitely a financial asset of your estate in collections and bankruptcy matters and subject to levy and/or sale, and we’ve covered how courts are unlikely to order nights and weekends so you can see the cat. We’ve established, pretty damn well, that animals are not people in the eyes of the law, and therefore have no legal standing whatsoever except that of a piece of property that woofs, whines, and occasionally shits on the carpet. Although these are all attributes that sometimes go to your client’s toddler as well, the dog will never grow up to roll their eyes and lock themselves in their rooms listening to that damn hippity-hop music, and therefore they’ll never be people. Full stop, end the story, roll credits.

What about when something happens to your pet, though, or better yet when something happens to someone else because of your pet? What then? Obviously because a pet isn’t a person it can’t exactly file a lawsuit, and although a horde of ferrets may hoard your jewelry in a hidden place it can’t exactly pay off a judgment. What happens in those situations where legal liability accrues to someone because of a client’s animal?

Well, in short, the owner should get ready to be bent over and gone after doggy style in either situation.

Your Pet Is Probably Worthless.

Alright, so animals are property, and when someone damages your property you’re entitled to the value of that property, or more specifically, either the replacement value of the property of the difference in value between the condition it was in and the condition it is in now. For example, if someone cuts off your dog’s leg in an accidental chainsaw juggling mishap, you’d be entitled not to the full value of your dog, but rather the difference in value between a four-legged dog and a three legged dog.

Now, some people are saying “But animals are PRICELESS, Boozy.” First, put down the fucking granola bar and buy a sweater that doesn’t have the cat’s face on it. Everyone thinks you’re a little weird.

Second, I mean, you’re technically right in that pets, under law, are indeed somewhat priceless. By that, of course, I mean that they don’t have a price. They’re pretty much fucking worthless as a question of law. Justice Willett of the Texas Supreme Court, who you can locate on Twitter,  laid it out succinctly  Strickland v. Medlen  when he wrote:

” [T]he human-animal bond, while undeniable, is uncompensable, no matter how it is conceived in litigation—as a measure of property damages[.]”

So A Pet Is Worth Nothing?

Not really, but practically…yeah. Look, it seems unfair, but this is the majority rule among the states out there: you are entitled to recover the actual, ascertainable market value of the property that you lost, and nothing more absent some extenuating circumstances for punitives.

The debate in Strickland, and in a lot of these cases, is that pets may be practically worthless on the open market, but they’re emotionally worth a fortune to the loving family that owns them. Who among us hasn’t broken down in sobs at the end of a movie about a dog? I remember seeing Independence Day in theaters and listening to people cheer like idiots when the dog lived. Americans love their fucking dogs, sometimes, as I discussed Monday, more than their actual fucking children.

But the law isn’t built around compensating people for emotional value in an animal, and, as Justice Willett points out, the question of “loss of companionship” damages, which are essentially damages suffered by a partner for the loss of their spouse, are limited to personal injury, not property, disputes. In short, you can only claim something resembling emotional damages for an act when the injury happened to a person, not a piece of property.

What do you think the average pet is worth, though? About $5.00 in market value? Considering people give away dogs all the damn time, maybe that? Of course, there is a loophole for particularly useful or valuable animals, such as service dogs, which can increase the value of the lost animal up to the value of the “services and utility” of the animal…so maybe if you have a pure-bred champion dog that is worth a shit-ton for breeding purposes you can get more than nominal value, or if your dog is specially trained for seeing eye purposes or something you may be able to get the replacement cost of another, equally trained dog. Still and all, though, your pet is going to be valued at whatever the market value is and nothing fucking more.

That Fucking Sucks, Boozy.

Not as much as it would for the dog, if they could understand we legally value their lives according to what we could get for them at a swap meet, but there are some pretty good policy justifications for this one.  Really, you should go read Justice Willett’s opinion. It’s a pretty good primer on this shit.

Well, At Least If My Dog Bites Someone…

Oh no, you’re gonna get fucked if your dog bites someone.

…What?

Oh fucking yeah. That’s just an ass-reaming all day long, man. Do you have homeowner’s coverage? Get homeowner’s coverage. Now.

Look, as the owner of a piece of property that can definitely maul the fuck out of someone if it decides to, you have certain duties under law to protect third-parties against that possibility. That means that you have to take all reasonable measures to prevent your dog from grabbing a kid and shaking them like a fucking rag doll. In either case, though, the fact that your pet is your property means that ultimately you are responsible for their behavior. Lawyers, you already know this shit and hopefully advise your clients to keep an eye on the fucking dog.

But One Free Bite…

Fuck you and fuck “one free bite.” If you’re not a muggle and reading this and you just mouthed those words, I want you to go wash your mouth out with soap. “One free bite” is a doctrine that an owner of an animal can’t reasonably know that their dog/pet has a propensity to attack, and therefore they were not aware of their duty to protect against the attack, until such time as the pet has already attacked at least once. After that one time, the owner is considered legally to be on notice of the animal’s temper and therefore liable for any subsequent attacks to the fullest extent of the law.

Note, “one free bite” does not and never has relieved the owner of a pet from liability for medical expenses resulting from the actions of their pet in practice even if it does  at law. Your pet injures someone, the bill will be on you 9 times out of 10, and most decent lawyers fucking know that.  Insurance companies will pay the fucking bill and move on.

This isn’t even figuring in the fact that the vast majority of states don’t generally apply “one free bite” anymore. In some form, about 31 states have adopted what we call “statutory strict liability” which means there is absolutely no requirement that the dog have a propensity for violence or attacking before the owner be held liable for the full amount of the damages.  Another 6 states have “Mixed Negligence” laws on the books for dog bite cases, which basically say “Okay, the owner’s always liable for medical expenses, but is only liable for anything else if the one bite rule is met.” So there are 37 states with some form of statutory liability, either strict or mixed, that always makes the owner at least partially liable, under some circumstances, for the action of their dogs.

This means that a vast minority of the states, only about 13, actually follow the strict common-law rule that an owner is only liable for injuries caused by their pet after the pet has mauled a small child into oblivion. Also, we’re not even touching on strict liability or negligence per se here.

What?

Oh, yeah.

So, strict liability is a tort law principle that says certain activities are so goddamn dangerous you shouldn’t be able to engage in them no matter what and the simple fact that you engaged in them is enough to make you liable for any injuries resulting therefrom. For example, juggling fucking chainsaws near someone’s dog.

Negligence per se is likewise the same sort of deal, except in this case you violated a law intended to protect people from a certain type of harm, and therefore you’re automatically liable for any injuries that result from the violation.

Now, these are high fucking level overviews, but those are the general ideas of it, and lawyers, you can definitely fucking use these for your dog-bite cases.

See, strict liability says that some animals, such as non-common domesticated pets, are dangerous simply because of their nature. For example, that goddamn idiot who keeps tigers at his house. If those tigers escape and maul somebody, he doesn’t get the benefit of the “one free bite” rule because he’s keeping goddamn tigers in his fucking back yard. That’s strict liability in action, and with some breeds of dogs being declared per se dangerous, it removes a step in the “one bite” analysis off the bat by arguably making the keeping of those breeds a question of strict liability that leaves only causation and damages left to be determined.

Likewise, a violation of a dog ordinance requiring all dogs to be on leads, in fenced yards, on leashes, or indoors can be argued to be an ordinance that is intended to protect the public from unrestrained animals. In that case, a violation, such as your dog slipping the lead and attacking someone, could theoretically lead to a negligence per se claim even in a “one bite” jurisdiction, because you violated your legal duty, prescribed by law, to make sure your dog was in compliance with the law.

Ain’t this shit fun? So, you know, even if you’re in a “one bite” state, don’t toss the case in the garbage, you may still be able to collect.

What if a burglar…

Yeah, that’s an exception to liability. Trespassers, provocation, etc. can all be raised as defenses generally, although you need to be aware that these statutes, and the defenses to liability, are really fucking state specific so your best bet is to talk to a lawyer in your area. In Pennsylvania the dog bite statute is way different from the one in New York, etc. etc. etc., and the courts have decided that differently there. So, you know, fucking lawyer.

You’re a depressing asshole, Boozy.

Yeah, sort of.

Look, we all love our pets, and you should definitely keep your pets because at the end of the day they’re just about the only thing that can make a bad day good. But you need to be aware that the law does not treat your pet like a person and treats your pet like property. This doesn’t change, no matter how many neat Christmas sweaters you dress Fido up in.

Because of that, there are certain facts: Pets as property are assets, they are divided like property in family law, you can only be compensated for their actual (not emotional) value, and you’re liable to control your property in a manner that makes sure nobody else gets hurt. This isn’t me actively trying to be a depressing asshole, this is me flat-out telling you shit that you need to know for responsible pet ownership, and shit that you need to make sure your clients understand so you can counsel and represent them effectively when pets are in the picture.

Whether the law sucks on this or not, it’s the goddamn law, and it’s your job to know it.

Till Friday, which this week is “Freaky Friday” where I’ll talk about the Greenbrier Ghost whose totally inadmissible testimony in court helped convict her murderer, peace out.

-BB