Can You Sue for Injuries to Your Pets in South Carolina?

My wife and I love animals. I guess that’s why we have 5 dogs (2 of which are therapy dogs), one cat, and a powerful vacuum cleaner! As a lawyer and a pet owner, clients have asked me about claims of veterinary malpractice or about other claims for injuries caused by others to pets. This article covers how South Carolina law treats these types of claims.

Pets are “Personal Property” in South Carolina

My pets are invaluable and are worth far more to me than just a dollar figure. They are my companions and they bring joy into my life that can’t be easily measured. However, the value that we place on our furry friends and other pets and the value the law places on them are two very different things.

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Traditionally, South Carolina’s courts consider pets to be “personal property” muck like your TV or your car. Customarily, animals had value to their owners because they were raised for consumption, work, or fur. Basically, these animals had a “market price” value based on a price per pound. Then, in an 1899 larceny case, a South Carolina court recognized for the first time that a dog had value other than “market value” because the dog provided amusement and service to the owner. Unfortunately, the law in South Carolina hasn’t progressed much since 1899. For example, in 1937, an owner brought a lawsuit to recover damages for her ten breeding dogs that had been poisoned to death. The owner sought $50 per dog an additional $2,500 for her emotional damage and for the pain and suffering the dogs endured. However, the court awarded the dog owner $500 replacement value of the dogs. In other words, the court only recognized these dogs as personal property.

Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in the 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 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 man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. 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 him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his 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 the graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad, but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.

George Graham Vest – c. 1855

Legal Claims in South Carolina for Injuries to Pets

Presently, South Carolina dog owners can bring at least five types of legal actions for harm to a dog: (1) negligence; (2) veterinary malpractice; (3) breach of contract; (4) conversion (like theft but civil in nature); and (5) trespass to chattel (interfered with another person’s lawful possession of property). For these legal actions, a South Carolina court may award damages that include veterinary bills, lost profits (for breeding or showing), increased costs of care (long-term medication), physical therapy bills, or replacement value (how much the owner paid for him/her).

In South Carolina, a pet owners’ biggest challenge when filing a suit is the low value of their damages which is often just the replacement cost of their pet. For example, my dogs are all rescues. Despite the fact that my dogs are irreplaceable to me, each of them would be worth only a few dollars as far as South Carolina law is concerned. Other dogs have more value such as a breeding dog for which the owner may lose income. If the dog is a service or a therapy dog, the owner may recover their financial investment in training these dogs. Likewise, an owner may seek damages for the investment in training a dog who competes in agility, obedience, or has earned AKC titles.

Emotional Damage Claims for Injuries to Pets

Novel arguments are making their way across the country for the recovery of damages for the emotional value of pets. There is a slow legal trend from state to state where courts are allowing owners to recover damages for emotional harm and to access punitive damages for intentional harm caused to a pet.

Here in South Carolina, our courts haven’t decided whether an owner may make a claim for the owner’s emotional suffering. Even if South Carolina does allow for this type of legal claim, the law requires that the intentional conduct and the resulting injury must occur in the claimant’s presence. This is known as “bystander” recovery. That means that there would be no claim for emotional harm if the owner wasn’t present such as when a dog is injured while at the groomers or while a pet is under a veterinarian’s care.

Final Thoughts

Under the current laws in South Carolina, if a pet is injured or killed, the most an owner can recover are veterinary bills incurred to treat the pet’s injuries and the pet’s replacement value. South Carolina law doesn’t yet recognize claims for either the pet’s or the owner’s suffering. Although other states have started to recognize that pets such as dogs mean much more to their owners than property such as TV’s or a lawnmower, South Carolina hasn’t shown any recent signs of expanding an owner’s legal claims for harm to our furry friends such as dogs and cats or for other types of pets. If your pet has been injured as a result of veterinary malpractice or the harmful conduct of another person, please call us to discuss your legal rights in South Carolina.

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