John Travolta, Dog Law and You

Last Updated May 18, 2010 7:29 PM EDT

News that John Travolta's two dogs were killed in an accident on an airport runway in Bangor, Maine, has some people wondering about their rights when a pet is hurt or killed while traveling.

Is the airport or the operator of the commercial vehicle that struck the dogs compelled to reimburse Travolta and wife, Kelly Preston, for the loss of their dogs? Can the celebrity couple press for pain and suffering damages? Do they have a negligence claim, given that both dogs apparently were being walked on a leash when they were hit?

If you lost a pet in an airline accident -- or a traffic accident -- do you have rights?

The answer is yes, but your rights may vary based on where and how you lost your pet.

The Travoltas were traveling on a private plane, so they have no claim against an airline. However if you lose a pet that you were transporting on a commercial airline, the airline is going to consider the pet "baggage" and reimburse you for a maximum of $3,300, which is their standard liability limit for lost luggage, according to Mary Randolph, author of "Every Dog's Legal Guide." (Airlines typically charge more than a baggage fee to transport a pet, though. Even if you put the pet on your lap, it's likely to cost as much as $150 to take it with you.)

If you are flying with a very valuable pet that's too large to travel in the passenger compartment, you can tell the airline in advance that you don't want to accept this limit on your breathing "baggage." If you believe your show dog is worth $10,000 for example, you can tell the airline that you want to purchase an additional $6,700 in coverage for the pet.

Airlines are not compelled to reimburse for your pain and suffering if your dog dies in transit, but sometimes they do. In one case that Randolph cites in her dog blog (essentially free excerpts from her book), a pet owner sued for the loss of a dog that had died when it was left in a cargo hold in 115 degree heat for more than an hour. The airline agreed to settle for $15,000.

If your dog is hit by a car or killed by your neighbor's pet, reimbursement rates are likely to be considerably less, said Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network in Los Angeles.

Pets are typically covered under your homeowners insurance policy, which considers your animals "property." An insurer would reimburse you for the loss of that property at a rate that reflected the cost of replacing the animal at a shelter, he said.

In one recent case, a dog owner sued his neighbor because the neighbor's dog had killed the plaintiff's smaller pet, Moraga said. The neighbor's insurer paid out $150 for the dog and denied the claim for pain and suffering.

If the dog was American Kennel Club certified it might warrant a larger payment, Moraga added. But the reimbursement rate could be governed by the limits in the homeowners policy.

Insurers typically limit reimbursement for individual pieces of property to $1,000 or $1,500, he said. Property of greater value would have to be separately covered by an insurance "rider," which is an add-on policy. The bright side of this type of policy rider is that whatever property it covers is covered no matter where it goes.

Typically, a homeowner would not be able to make a claim if their own dog died in an accident on their own property or while it was in their own care. That's because your claims would be limited by your policy's deductible and it's rare for deductibles on homeowners policies to be low enough to cover the amount insurers generally agree to pay for a pet.

It's only when someone else's pet dies on your property that insurance typically kicks in under the "liability" section of your policy, which is not subject to a deductible.

Do you have to accept the reimbursement rate that the insurer dictates? Not necessarily. Policies rarely spell out the limits on reimbursement for an animal. And even if they did, you could claim your loss was greater -- or tragic enough to warrant pain and suffering damages -- regardless of whether or not the cost was covered by insurance.