The new dog-walking “apps” Wag! and Rover can be a life-saver for man's best friend.
But what happens when a dog walker loses your dog or a dog is injured while under the walker's care?
In March, the New York Post reported that dog walkers hired through Wag! had lost three dogs in a one-month period.
Other outlets have reported about dogs that have been seriously injured or died while in a dog walker's care.
Who is liable for a dog walker's negligence?
In some cases, lost or injured dogs are simply the result of accidents that could happen to anyone.
But in others, such incidents are arguably a result of the dog walker's negligence.
Most states allow pet owners to sue a dog walker whose negligence results in injury or death to an animal. (Note that in some states, damages may be limited to the dog's market value).
The bigger question is whether Wag! or Rover themselves are liable for a dog walker's negligence.
The short answer is… maybe.
Like Uber for dogs
According to Wag!'s and Rover's Terms of Service contracts, the companies aren't liable when one of their pet sitters is negligent. From their perspective, they are just a service connecting pet sitters with pet owners – a sort of Craigslist with a narrow focus.
But, in fact, there is a reason these services are often called Uber for dogs. Like Uber, the companies run background checks. Like Uber, they screen their service providers. And, like Uber, they pay their dog walkers directly.
Also unlike Craigslist, dog walking companies require a lengthy contract with their pet sitters. These contracts purportedly absolve the companies from liability from a pet sitter's/dog walker's negligent.
What Wag!'s and Rover's contracts say about liability for lost dogs
Despite what Wag!'s and Rover's contracts say, it is an open question as to whether they are liable when something goes wrong.
Wag!'s contract provides, in part:
WAG! SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR… DAMAGES… RELATED TO, IN CONNECTION WITH, OR OTHERWISE RESULTING FROM ANY USE OF THE SERVICES, EVEN IF WAG! HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.
Rover's contract advises that:
YOUR USE AND/OR PROVISION OF PET CARE SERVICES IS AT YOUR SOLE AND EXCLUSIVE RISK.
But these statements may be more bark than bite.
What law applies to Wag!'s and Rover's contracts?
Wag!'s contract says that it is governed by California law. Rover's contract calls for the law of Washington state.
Courts generally abide by such “choice of law” provisions in contracts. But they may disregard such a clause if the contract really has nothing to do with that state.
So let's consider a moment a dog owner in Nevada who hires a pet sitter who is also in Nevada. The services have nothing do with California. If there is a dispute, it will be resolved by an arbitrator or small claims judge in Nevada. This person is unlikely to be familiar with the laws of California and may simply choose to apply Nevada law instead.
This makes it difficult to draw any general conclusions about whether a lawsuit against Wag! or Rover might be successful.
But let's say the judge is willing to do a little homework and look into California law on injuries to pets. What does California law say about who is liable when a dog walker loses a dog?
California law on injuries caused by dog walkers
California has some of the most pet-friendly laws in the nation. But very few cases actually make their way to court. And none of the cases deal with the liability of a dog sitting app company. These apps are simply too new.
But in California, at least, a case for a lost dog could be worth something. In California, when someone's negligence results in injury to a dog, California law lets the dog owner recover damages for:
- The reasonable and necessary costs for treatment and care of the pet attributable to the injury;
- Punitive damages (if the injury was caused willfully or by gross negligence); and
- If extreme cases, damages for emotional distress.
Wag! and Rover are unlikely to be sued in court
The potential liability of Wag! and Rover for lost or injured dogs has not been tested in a California appellate court and probably never will be.
This is because Wag! and Rover's contracts require pet owners to agree to sue only in small claims court or by arbitration. Neither of these venues issues precedential rulings or even rulings that are made public.
But, someday soon, a case against Uber is likely to make it through the court system. And when it does, such a case may give dog owners ammunition to use against Wag! or Rover.
So far Uber has been successful so far at settling ride-sharing liability cases against it out of court. But that may change.
For now, however, the short answer is that no one knows whether a suit against Wag! or Rover would be successful.
Our best advice is to talk to an experienced personal injury lawyer if your dog has been lost or injured by a dog walker.