I was encouraged to write this article for two reasons. Firstly, there is little on the Internet which clearly states how a cat owner can go about suing in civil law for compensation when another person kills their cat deliberately. Secondly, the recent story of two Welsh thugs who killed a person’s cat with their dog prompted me to write the article. The thugs are teenagers and their identities are protected under the criminal law in the UK. They need to be named in my view. The cat’s owner needs some sort of justice beyond the teenagers being punished in criminal law.
It doesn’t matter how the other person kills your cat. The classic example that we see on the Internet is malicious thugs killing cats by throwing them against walls or kicking them or, as mentioned above, setting a dog on a cat.
These will be crimes but I’m concerned here with what the cat owner can personally do to seek recompense.
Follow criminal proceedings
In my considered opinion, you do not need a lawyer to sue the criminals who killed or hurt your cat. You would sue them after the criminal case took place, normally. If you know their names and have good evidence you could sue them before criminal proceedings if, for example, the police were unable to prosecute them for a technical reason.
Of course, if the prosecution service decide not to prosecute it would normally be because of a lack of evidence which will certainly hamper any civil proceedings. You could almost argue that it is essential that a claim in civil law compensation should follow successful criminal proceedings in this instance. However failed criminal proceedings would provide good evidence and the standard of proof is lower in civil cases.
Most people realise by now that domestic cats are considered to be chattels under the law. This is an old-fashioned word which means a possession much like any other possession in the household.
There are two branches under the law of tort which are applicable but which a little used nowadays. The first is the tort of trespass to chattels and the second is the tort of conversion. They are very similar.
UK and USA
It is probably reasonable to say that both these branches of the law of tort are applicable both in the USA and the UK. This is because the USA adopted UK law many years ago. There may be some slight differences but essentially they are the same. However, in the USA there are variations in the law among the 50 states and sometimes counties and cities have their own ordinances which may interfere with the federal law concerning torts. However, both the torts mentioned above are fundamental common law remedies and in my opinion they will be applicable across the entirety of United States notwithstanding that there may be some variations between states and lower jurisdictions.
Trespass to chattels
Trespass to chattels concerns a person’s interference with another person’s lawful possession of a chattel. The cat owner owns a chattel: their cat. If another person sets of dog upon their cat and destroys her that has to be regarded as an interference with the cat owner’s lawful possession.
As I understand it, for a successful claim to be made under trespass to chattels the “victim” has to prove that she was dispossessed of her cat or her cat was injured or killed. That would be established if there is good evidence that a specified person, for example, set their dog upon the cat owner’s cat and there was evidence to support it (e.g. video).
The other tort is one of conversion. This concerns treating the chattel, in this case the cat, as if they owned the cat when in fact she was owned by somebody else. An example might be if a person cuts down someone’s tree on land owned by another person. Once again, in my opinion, this tort would apply to a person setting a dog upon a cat with the intention of killing the cat.
It may also apply, incidentally, if a person stole a cat and sold it because that would be treating the cat as their own. It is not dissimilar to the crime of theft.
Damages will be small
As a random bred, non-purebred, domestic cat is worth a relatively small sum of money, the action would begin in the Small Claims Court which is user-friendly. These court proceedings are designed to be managed by the plaintiff in person. You are not meant to employ a lawyer because costs will almost invariably be greater than the amount of damages achieved if the case is concluded successfully.
If my cat was killed or injured by another person and I had sufficient evidence and/or the person was prosecuted successfully, I would certainly sue in the Small Claims Court to seek personal satisfaction. It is a way of making a statement and seeking closure. Certainly, punishing a person for killing your cat in the criminal courts does provide justice but a cat owner can go one step further and seek damages herself. Damages would normally be limited to the value of the cat which might be something in the order of £50-£100 (for purebred cats the amount would usually rise to several thousands dollars or pounds depending on the cat and breed). Sometimes, rarely, a plaintiff is awarded damages reflecting emotional distress. There is a case on this in the American courts as I understand it.
I would certainly apply for damages concerning the value of the cat together with damages and compensation for emotional distress on the loss of a valued animal companion.
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