Understanding Your Legal Rights If Your Pet Is Harmed in Crash Caused By Another Driver

By Ken W. Harrell, Managing Partner

For many of us, our pet is a valued family member. My family adopted our lovable mutt Dixie six years ago from a pet shelter, and I don’t think she’s missed a night of sleeping in my daughter’s bed since then. Because we value our pet’s companionship so much, they often travel with us in our vehicles, even if it’s just while we run some errands. If the undesired accident happens, what are your rights if your animal is injured, or God forbid, killed as a result?

As I’m sure almost all of you know, vehicle owners are required to carry liability insurance coverage on their cars. In the event that the at-fault driver doesn’t have insurance (a frequent occurrence in South Carolina), your uninsured motorist coverage will cover your damages. Under the law, your pet is considered to be your personal property. Don’t take offense at this, animal lovers. I certainly don’t consider Dixie to be the same as my car or my bicycle, but that’s the way she’d be viewed under the law. If your pet is injured due to the negligence of another driver, you would certainly be entitled to have his or her veterinary bills covered, which can be quite extensive if the injury is severe. What would not be recoverable would be the type of intangible damages that you could recover for —things such as pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.

What about the worst case scenario where a beloved pet was killed due to an accident? Again, most of us believe our pets are priceless and no amount of money would adequately compensate us if our pet was killed due to someone else’s negligence. Again, the law takes a calloused approach to this recovery based on the value of the “property.” For most of us, the recovery would be fairly negligible, as would certainly be the case with my beloved mutt. Courts will typically look at the “market value” of the animal, which will include such factors as the breed, pedigree, and profitability of the animal. Unless you happen to own an animal which wins “Best of Show” awards at a prestigious animal show, “profitability” is likely not a factor, and that’s not why we love owning animals anyway. In most instances, courts look at what the replacement cost of the pet would be as a damages amount.

Of course, here’s hoping that none of you ever has to deal with this situation. Along those lines, here are some basic safety tips for your pets:

  1. Don’t let your animals roam freely in the car, especially cats.
  2. Don’t let your dog sit in the front seat, and definitely not in your lap.
  3. Don’t let your dog ride with its head out the window.

One of the reasons we love having pets is the companionship they offer so don’t hesitate to bring them along for the ride. However, stay safe out there – for your sake and the sake of your pet.