Is Your Family Dog Protected Under Virginia Law in an Accident?

Author: Attorney Christopher Allen Meyer

The law firm of Allen & Allen represents people for personal injuries suffered in accidents. But sometimes an animal or pet, perhaps a family dog, is also injured in an accident. Can you recover for the emotional distress suffered by you or other family members when your beloved pet is injured and suffering, or perhaps for the grief that you suffer when a pet is negligently killed?

Unfortunately, the short answer is no. In Virginia, as in most states, pets are treated in the law as personal property, no matter how beloved they may be or how much a part of the family. You can only recover for the market value of the dog or, if less, the veterinarian bill and expenses to treat your pet. For those of us like me who own a mutt, the monetary value is quite small even though my dog is of great personal value to me and my family.

In a recent case the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the rule that a person cannot recover from the emotional distress that they suffer from seeing a pet negligently injured in an accident. The Court said:

“It is beyond debate that animals, particularly dogs and cats, when kept as pets and companions, occupy a position in human affections far removed from livestock. Especially in the case of owners who are disabled, aged or lonely, an emotional bond may exist with a pet resembling that between parent and child, and the loss of such an animal may give rise to grief approaching that attending the loss of a family member. The fact remains, however, that the law in Virginia, as in most states that have decided the question, regards animals, however beloved, as personal property. The General Assembly, in Code § 3.1-796.127, expressly declared: “All dogs and cats shall be deemed personal property. . . .” That section also provides the remedy for the injury of such an animal by allowing the owner “to recover the value thereof or the damage done thereto in an appropriate action at law. . . .” Our decisions have never approved an award of damages for emotional distress resulting from negligently inflicted injury to personal property.” Kondaurov v. Kerdasha, 271 Va. 646; 629 S.E.2d 181 (April 21, 2006)

However, for many of us the following closing argument by an attorney named George G. Vest better describes what we think of our dogs. Mr. Vest was an attorney in Missouri and was seeking compensation for a client whose dog was intentionally killed by a sheep farmer. The lawsuit sought $50.00, which was the maximum value Missouri law permitted at that time. In his closing statement, Mr. Vest argued as follows:

“Gentlemen of the jury: The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.

Gentlemen of the jury: A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.” 1

Mr. Vest won the case and became famous for it, and won again when it was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. 2 His closing argument is known as the “Eulogy on the Dog”, and was read into the Congressional Record by a Missouri congressman on October 14, 1916.  3 A statue honoring the dog, Old Drum, stands in front of the Warrensburg Courthouse in Johnson County, Missouri, where the case was tried in September 1870. 4

Sobre el Autor: Chris Meyer es un Abogado de accidentes automovilísticos Richmond with the Virginia personal injury law firm Allen & Allen. Chris works primarily in the firm’s Richmond, Mechanicsville and Short Pump branches.

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