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.
What should I have done after hitting the dog?
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 were in such a situation.
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?
Some very bad answers from the internet!
An authoritative answer to that question proved surprisingly difficult to find. Some of the advice given on the internet seemed problematical, at best.
For example, one site gave 20 steps that could be taken, the first of which was: if the animal is clearly unable to live, get back in your car and put it out of its misery.
Apparently the authors of that advice envisioned a luckless driver taking it upon himself to determine the injured creature's medical condition, and if the prognosis seemed negative, run it over again to give it a "quick and painless" death. That definitely did not seem to me to be a wise course of action!
Have you ever hit a dog or cat with your car?
VIDEO: Do the right thing!
Advice from the ASPCA
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. I summarize their counsel below.
Legal requirements cited refer specifically to New Jersey, and may vary in other states. Also, these requirements apply only to domestic animals such as dogs, cats, cows, horses, etc. Running over a skunk on the road might have some pretty severe consequences, but they won't necessarily be legal ones.
The following steps are my understanding of the information CCSPCA supplied concerning what a driver should do when his or her vehicle hits a domestic animal.
1. You must stop and notify authorities
The laws of most states require that if you hit a domestic animal, you must stop and notify the appropriate state or local police authority. If you don't do so, you can be charged with leaving the scene.
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.
"You have to call the police. The big issue is the failure to stop to render aid.”
In the newspaper account of Ruggiero’s arrest, the chief of police 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.”
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. CCSPCA recommends that you think of hitting a domestic animal as if an automobile accident had occurred and act accordingly. In most locations, calling 911 would be the appropriate response.
2. Don't try to move the animal unless you are sure it is safe to do so
If the animal is still alive, CCSPCA recommends that you wait with it until help arrives. Move it only if necessary (for example, if the animal is still in the road where it could be hit by other traffic) and safe.
What about cats?
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.
Remember that a hurt and scared animal may lash out or bite when approached, so use caution and common sense. If you decide it’s necessary to move the animal, the use of a blanket and gloves to avoid direct contact with it would be a common-sense precaution.
Also, be very careful for your own safety if you decide to go onto the roadway in order to care for the animal. Pull your vehicle off to the side of the road, and only get out to go to the animal if it’s clear there is no danger of you being hit by oncoming traffic.
3. Be aware of the legal ramifications of moving the animal
(Note: laws may vary, so you should check the law in your state).
CCSPCA notes 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.
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.
Don’t panic out of fear of being unfairly held liable for hitting the animal
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.
On the other hand, according to the justanswer.com attorney cited above, 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.
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.
© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin