Can I sue someone for hurting my dog?

can i sue someone for hurting my dogWhat can an animal lover do if someone hurts his or her own four-legged family member? Can I sue someone for hurting my dog?  Pet owners have rights under 2017 Act 10 – Pennsylvania Cruelty to Animal Laws, however the penalty for hurting a dog is different depending on if the case is in civil or criminal court.  Dogs are considered nothing more than property under Pennsylvania law, however Philadelphia Dog Bite Lawyers may seek to recover for a pet owners emotional distress in losing their pet through the negligent act of another person.

Recognizing the Deep Paw Print On Our Hearts

Historically, state laws have had a rather cold stance on recognizing our furry best friends as living beings worthy of civil rights as expansive as our own.  Pennsylvania Law has come a long way in recognizing the deep paw prints left on our hearts by our furry best friends by way of heightening the degree of punishment on a criminal level for an animal abuser.  On a civil level, Pennsylvania’s available cause of actions for pet owners, at face value, still seem to be written with an icicle; a jury is not permitted to award a pet owner for the sentimental value of his/her pet who was wrongfully maimed/killed. However, Pennsylvania has made available to pet owners a different cause of action which would compensate the pet owner essentially to the same degree. While the legal road taken may be different, the destination is the same.

Civil vs. Criminal Dog Laws

To understand Pennsylvania dog laws, it is important to first understand the difference between civil court and criminal court. In civil court, the plaintiff (i.e., victim) is a person or civil entity, like a business.  In criminal court, the government steps into the shoes of the plaintiff—the concept being that the government was wronged because the defendant violated its laws, thus hurting its citizens.

In civil cases, there is no jail time. A civil plaintiff can only receive monetary damages or some type of equitable relief, such as the court requiring the defendant to immediately stop the harmful behavior (also called an injunction). In criminal court, there can be monetary damages, but jail/prison time is also an option.

What is the penalty for hurting my dog in CRIMINAL court?

Pennsylvania’s criminal animal abuse laws have been updated as recently as June 28, 2017 wherein animal abusers are now facing felony charges.  The criminal punishment for all types of animal abuse depends on what happened or could have imminently happened to the animal due to the abuse.

For example, should you entrust your pet to someone while you were away and they were “neglectful” (“neglectful” being defined as a person who owes a duty of care to an animal and denies it of 1) necessary food and clean water, 2) access to clean shelter and protection from weather, the shelter needing to be sufficient for the animal to stay dry and retain its body heat, or 3) provide it with necessary veterinary care) then such neglect qualifies the abuser for simply a summary offense (the most minor type of criminal offense, also called a non-traffic citation, and usually results in a fine). The punishment steepens if the neglect caused bodily injury to your pet or placed your pet in imminent risk of serious bodily injury. Should that occur, the neglectful animal abuser would be charged with 3rd degree misdemeanor, which includes from 6 months to 1 year in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

Should someone be “cruel” to your beloved pet (“cruelty” defined as intentionally knowing or recklessly illtreating, overloading, beating, abandoning or abusing your pet), the abuser’s punishment is, again, just a summary offense unless “the violation causes bodily injury to the animal or places the animal at imminent risk of serious bodily injury”, in which case the crime becomes a 2nd degree misdemeanor (which entails penalties such as a 1 – 2 year prison sentence and a fine up to $5,000).

Similarly, if an animal abuser is guilty of “aggravated cruelty” (aggravated cruelty defined as intentionally or knowingly 1) torturing an animal, or 2) “neglecting” or being “cruel” to an animal, and such neglect and cruelty causes serious bodily injury or death to the animal, the abuser would be facing a 3rd degree felony charge, which includes from 3.5 – 7 years in prison and a fine up to $15,000.

If an animal abuser mistreats police animals, Pennsylvania law essentially will, in Toby Keith’s words, light up the abuser’s world like the fourth of July. Simply “taunting” a police animal will wind up the abuser with a 3rd degree felony (the same punishment for aggravated cruelty). But if a person were to torture a police animal, the abuser will be smacked with a 2nd degree felony, which entails a 5 to 10-year prison sentence and a fine up to $25,000.  The abuser will also be responsible for reimbursing the owner for veterinary bills, replacement costs if the police animal is disabled or killed, and for the salary of the animal’s handler for the time that the handler’s services are lost to the agency.

Can I sue someone for hurting my dog in CIVIL court?

You can sue someone for hurting your dog in civil court, however your compensation under Pennsylvania law may not be what you expect. While the criminal laws have most certainly taken a few steps in the right direction, the civil court remains staunch in your pet being property–nothing more. Unlike when a human being dies at the wrongful hands of another, your pet’s lost life is the value of its original purchase price. Pennsylvania does not recognize sentimental value of a pet or the companionship it provided to you, as that is a right grown exclusively out of a marital relationship. In other words, your pet’s value is not $500,000 because it was your best friend. His value is $50 because that’s how much you paid at the ASPCA.  Pennsylvania, however, does allow pet owners to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress if someone maliciously harms a pet knowing it will cause emotional distress to the owner.

Claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress in the loss of your pet.

Pennsylvania, the home of the Quakers, does have a heart.  While Pennsylvania law protects the sanctity of marriage and puts “companionship” in marriage’s exclusive domain, it has taken steps to give pet owners a different road to restitution. Pennsylvania recognizes an owner’s emotional distress arising out of a PA resident’s pet’s malicious destruction, and thus has made a cause of action available to pet owners in civil court. As far back as 1964, one judge in Florida wrote “the affection of a master for his dog is a very real thing.” Pennsylvania has honored this sentiment by permitting Pennsylvania residents to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress in a situation where someone, with the knowledge that severe emotional distress is substantially certain to be produced by harming the pet, does it anyway. In fact, a Pennsylvania resident need not even have personally witnessed the event to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In other words, if a pet owner sues someone in civil court for maiming or killing his or her beloved pet, the jury’s award (if there is one) would not be the sentimental value of her pet’s life; however, the jury’s award would instead represent the degree of the pet owner’s emotional distress, which, when applied, is probably around the same monetary amount as the sentimental value of its companionship to the owner.

Fox Law is a dog-friendly personal injury law firm located in Philadelphia, PA. If you feel you have a dog related personal injury claim and would like to discuss your case, contact us today for a free consultation.

Laura Fox