For some dog owners, their dog isn’t simply a pet; it is a part of the family. The relationship isn’t just one of the owner providing care for the dog. Instead, emotional bonds form and the dog may “take care” of the owner in its own way. For those owners who share such a special bond with their dog, the loss—or injury—of a pet can be a very traumatizing experience. When the dog injury or death results from someone else’s negligence, or even being attacked by another dog, it certainly seems like recovery for emotional pain and suffering should be allowed in the courts.
So, how exactly does Virginia law handle this situation? Is it possible to bring a personal injury suit because you lost your dog?
The short answer is no.
In Virginia at least, dogs and cats are considered to be “personal property”. This means that if something happens to your pet, then the legal recourse available to you is to sue for loss or property or damage to your property. In other words, it is not a personal injury suit, but a property damages suit.
And that is an important distinction because the type of lawsuit that you bring determines the type of damages—or monetary recovery you can get. In a property lawsuit, what you can expect to recover are economic losses. For example, you might be able to recover the cost of your dog or the amount it will cost you to replace it. If you happen to be the owner of an expensive show dog, that might be a substantial amount of money. But for someone who got their dog at a shelter, that type of recovery is pretty useless. Economic recovery might also include costs you incur seeking veterinary treatment for your pet.
In this sense, the courts don’t really treat your beloved pet any differently than if any other piece of your personal property—your computer, television or car, for example—were to be damaged or destroyed. As unfair as this seems, to date, Virginia has very clearly stuck to this practice. As recently as 2006, the Virginia Supreme Court reiterated that even though people form very special and close relationships with their dogs, legally-speaking, the dog remains personal property and nothing more.
However, in cases where an innocent owner has been attacked while walking their dog, the victim of the vicious dog attack CAN bring a case for both the harms to their pet as well as their own personal injuries and losses. In tomorrow's post we will look at how Virginia law treats the losses for property damage and physical injury in a negligence case.