I Hit a Dog With My Car: What Am I Legally Required to Do?
It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood as I drove toward the house where I used to live. At the intersection where I was about to turn onto my street, a group of youngsters was happily playing on the sidewalk.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shape hurtle off the sidewalk, into the street, and straight into my moving car. For a terrifying moment, I thought I had hit a child. But, oh so thankfully, it turned out to be a dog.
Of course I jammed on the brakes, and as the car came to a stop, the children who had been playing on the sidewalk ran up to the injured animal, picked it up, and carried it away. Seeing that the dog was being cared for, I remained in my car and went on my way.
Because the apparent owners of the animal were on the scene, and immediately took charge of their pet, it seemed to me at the time that I had no further responsibility in the matter. But as I continued to think back on this incident in the several years since it occurred, I became more and more disturbed that I had no idea what my legal obligations would be if I ran over a dog. What, exactly, is a driver supposed to do when their vehicle hits (or, as in my case, is hit by) a dog, cat, or other domestic animal? What is he or she required to do?
Have You Ever Hit a Dog or Cat With Your Car?
What Should I Do After Hitting a Dog With My Car?
An authoritative answer to that question proved surprisingly difficult to find. Some of the advice given on the internet seemed problematical, at best. Failing to find a reliable source on the web, I turned to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in the hope that they would have a recommended procedure. My thanks to the Cumberland County, New Jersey SPCA (CCSPCA) for providing direction regarding this issue. The following steps are my understanding of what a driver should immediately do when his or her vehicle hits a domestic animal.
- Stop your car. Get out where it is safe to do so.
- Check on the animal. If the dog is still alive, call for assistance and wait until help arrives. Move the animal only if you can do so safely and it's necessary to prevent further injury or possible accidents from cars swerving to avoid hitting it.
- Use caution when moving the dog. A hurt and scared animal can become aggressive and lash out or bite. If possible, try to muzzle it with some type of fabric. You can use gloves and a blanket or jacket for protection as well.
- If no owner is present, check the dog for tags. You can use the information on the tag to contact the owner. If there are people around, you can also ask if they recognize the dog and can identify the owner.
- Call the police or animal control for assistance. They can make sure the dog is taken to a veterinarian where it can receive care. The vet can also scan for an identification microchip.
Injured animals in shock may act uncharacteristically. You are at risk of bite or injury if tending to an animal in distress. Always proceed with caution.
Failure to Stop Can Get You in Legal Trouble
The laws of most states require that if you hit a domestic animal, you must stop and notify the appropriate state or local authority. If you don't do so, you could find yourself in legal hot water.
That’s what happened to Kathleen Ruggiero of Clinton, CT. She struck and killed a dog that ran out from behind a plow truck and into the path of her car. She panicked and drove off, later attributing the damage to her vehicle to having hit a deer. But police matched a piece of a car grill found at the scene to Ruggiero’s Honda, and five hours after the accident she was arrested and charged.
In the newspaper account of Ruggiero’s arrest chief of police Joseph Faughnan commented, “If you hit a dog and stop, we’d go out and make a record of it. There’s generally no arrest. But, if you hit a dog, you have to stop. You have to call the police. The big issue is the failure to stop to render aid.”
In general, if you stop and make a reasonable effort to help the animal, the legal responsibility for the accident will not fall on you, but on the owner for allowing the dog to run loose.
You have to call the police. The big issue is the failure to stop to render aid.— Police Chief Joseph Faughnan
Be Aware of the Legal Ramifications of Moving the Animal
(Note that laws may vary from state to state, so you should check the law in your location).
CCSPCA advises that once you take possession of the animal, you also become responsible to ensure that it receives appropriate medical care.
What constitutes taking possession of the animal?
Picking it up or moving it to get it out of the street would not qualify as taking possession. But if you put the animal in your car, you have legally taken possession of it, and become responsible for its care. You should also be aware that if you take the animal to a veterinarian and the owner can't be identified, you may potentially be responsible for the veterinary bills. If you take this action, be sure to discuss this matter with the clinic beforehand.
As noted earlier, CCSPCA advises that rather than putting the animal in your car, it's best to call for assistance and wait until it arrives.
Am I Liable for Hitting a Dog With My Car?
Most jurisdictions have ordnances requiring that owners keep their pets under control at all times. If a free running animal hits or is hit by your vehicle, you are not likely to be held liable. The owner may be cited, and may be held responsible for costs associated with the accident. This may include any medical bills for the animal, and may also include repair of any damage to your vehicle. However, if the accident was caused in part by your negligence as a driver, you may be held to be at fault and liable for the value of the animal.
An attorney writing for justanswer.com notes that, in most states a pet is considered personal property, and a hit and run that results in property damage carries a criminal penalty. You could be charged with animal cruelty or failure to notify owners of property damage. Laws can vary state to state, but as a general rule you should stop after hitting a dog or other domestic animal. If the owner is present, you may give them your information like you would after a car accident. If the owner is not on the scene, it's especially important for you to contact your local police department, an animal care agency, or even call 911. Contacting the authorities will demonstrate that you made a good faith effort to help the animal.
Keep in mind that a number of states, such as Colorado, Maryland, Ohio, and California, have already enacted laws that protect first responders for pets that need emergency aid. Other states, including New York and Wisconsin, have similar laws that are pending.
Who Is Financially Liable for the Damage to My Car If I Hit a Dog?
Your car may have significant damage after hitting a dog. Most comprehensive insurance coverage plans will pay for damage caused by animals. If you are able to locate the owner of the animal, the claim may be picked up by their home insurance policy.
Remember that typically the owner of the dog is legally required to have their pet on a leash or restrained in some way. Unless you were speeding or driving recklessly, the owner will normally be held liable since their dog should not be running free, especially near a road where the the animal can cause accidents.
What Should I Do If I Kill a Dog With My Car?
The steps you should take if you killed a dog are not substantially different. You should not panic and drive off. Remember that you typically won't be held legally responsible for hitting a dog that's out on the road. In many places you are not even legally required to swerve out of the way since doing so could cause an accident.
Rather than just continuing on your way after hitting the animal, stop and pull over. If the body is in a location that could pose a danger to oncoming traffic, remove it from the road if you can do so safely. Then call the police or animal services to report the incident and tell them where to find the body so they can pick it up.
If your car is damaged, you may have a case against the owner. But be sensitive to the fact that the owner will probably be feeling devastated by the loss of their pet, so you may not want to press the matter at that time. Even if the damage to your vehicle is significant, try to be compassionate and refrain from heaping blame on the owner or the dog.
While cats are almost as likely as dogs to be hit by cars, an Australian report says 70 percent of the animals taken to an animal hospital after being hit were dogs, and only 30 percent were cats. Why the difference? Cats, being smaller, are more likely to die on the spot. Dogs have a better chance of survival.
What Should I Do If Someone Hits My Dog With Their Car?
Seeing your dog get hit by a car is an extremely traumatic experience, a pet owner's worst nightmare. Your immediate actions should be similar to what has been stated above: move your dog out of the road, be careful not to aggravate its injuries, and immediately take it to a vet. Even if your dog was just slightly grazed by a car traveling at a slow speed, you should still have it examined. And, just to cover your bases, you should take photographs of the damage and the scene (after giving aid to your dog).
Can I Sue a Driver for Hitting My Dog?
Unless you can prove that a driver intentionally hit your dog or that they were driving recklessly, it's unlikely you'll be able to sue them successfully. In fact, it's more likely that they could sue you since your dog should not have been loose. If the driver did stop to check on the animal, you should be thankful for their compassion. You definitely should not be confrontational or try to make them feel bad. Keep in mind that someone who just ran over a dog is probably feeling awful about it already.
Bottom Line: Stop and Call the Police
In light of these recommendations from CCSPCA, there is one thing I would change about the way I responded when the dog collided with my car. Even though the animal's owners took immediate charge of it, I would still call 911 before leaving the scene.
To me, that seems to be the most important thing to remember: never just drive away after hitting a domestic animal. If you call 911 and report it, whatever else may happen, you'll probably be on solid ground.
Do the Right Thing!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2014 Ronald E Franklin