Am I liable for these vet bills?
October 26, 2010 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Am I legally liable for veterinarian bills for my roommate's dog if the dog was injured while under my care?

Here's what happened: I offered to take my roommate's dog on daily walks to save him the cost of a dogsitter. While on a walk, I stopped for lunch and tied his leash to a fence a few feet away. While tied to the fence, he got himself wrapped up in the leash and managed to dislocate his leg. Since the original surgery, he has had numerous complications, and the bills have stacked up to over $6,000.

The roommate owes me $1375 for something unrelated, and though I originally worked out a payment plan with him because I understood he was in a rough situation, he is now saying that I should have contributed to the bills because the accident was my fault, and that he isn't going to further financially burden himself by paying me back until it is convenient for him.

I'm not asking whether or not I should contribute to the vet bills- I already did pay $350 for the initial visit and have told him he doesn't have to pay me back for that. I am interested in whether I am legally liable. This occurred in San Francisco if that's relevant.
posted by tumbleweedjack to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you have renter's insurance? Because it'll probably cover this.

(I have no idea if you're legally liable for dog injuries.)
posted by phunniemee at 6:31 PM on October 26, 2010

I'd be curious to see if the vet is at fault for the "complications." $350 to set a dog's leg seems scant. Did your roommate go to a vet or a blacksmith?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:50 PM on October 26, 2010

Were you watching him when he was tied up? Was it something you could have prevented if you had your eye on him?
posted by radioamy at 7:04 PM on October 26, 2010

I was watching him- he was only a couple of feet away. He was sitting down, a lady came over to pet him, he jumped and fell because his leg was tangled in the leash, and then he had a limp. It was a freak accident.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 7:10 PM on October 26, 2010

This is not legal advice and I am not your lawyer, and because laws vary by jurisdiction, you should consult a CA attorney for advice. That said, I think you could be liable as a bailor--that is, you were paid to keep a property safe, and that contractual relationship obligates you to perform your duties at a certain level. (The legal concept of "contract" does not require you to sit down and write out a legal document--just, essentially a "bargained for exchange.") Whether you can be held responsible for what a dog does to itself is possibly a question of fact (i.e., were you at lunch for 10 minutes? Or two hours? Was it cold/hot out, and the dog was exposed to the elements? Was it on a very busy street?) If this went to small claims court, I could easily see you losing, to be frank, particularly if you're before a judge who is an animal lover. You might want to do some googling about bailors and "bailments."

Again, not legal advice, and I'm not your lawyer--consult a lawyer in the fine California Republic.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:10 PM on October 26, 2010

If you were watching him, then you would have noticed he was wrapped up in the leash. Why did you not unwrap him?
posted by MaryDellamorte at 7:21 PM on October 26, 2010

Admiral Haddock- I wasn't paid, I was doing it for free. Does that change the fact of whether I would still be a bailor?
MaryDellamorte- I didn't unwrap him because the whole thing happened in about 5 seconds.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 7:23 PM on October 26, 2010

Not legal advice, and still not your lawyer. Sorry--I misread the original post. I thought it said that you did it for the price of a dogsitter, not to save him the price of a dogsitter. Yes, it could change the result, though you would likely still be a bailor. You might do some googling of "gratuitous bailments," which comprise bailments where one party is looking after the property of another without being compensated. It is likely a lesser standard required, but, again, laws vary a lot by jurisdiction, and I don't know anything about CA law (and this is not my area of law, in any event). And, again, you'd probably be sued in small claims court, and I always think of that as being more about the equities than the black letter law (meaning you might get a judge who thinks you're liable because it's fair, not because this is a settled principle of CA law. Regardless, good luck. Hope pooch recovers and roommate relations are not too frosty.

Not your lawyer, not legal advice. Woof.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:40 PM on October 26, 2010

Admiral Haddock- I googled gratuitous bailment and found this quote: "With a gratuitous bailment, the bailee won't be liable for damage to the property unless he's grossly negligent." I definitely wasn't being grossly negligent, so I feel secure that I'm not liable. Thanks for the help!
posted by tumbleweedjack at 7:49 PM on October 26, 2010


I know you're asking us to comment on the legal aspect of the situation, but I want to speak briefly to other considerations.

From the roommate's perspective, $6000 is a lot to pay, especially because your description seems to indicate he was already in a tight budget situation to begin with. It also seems like the roommate isn't looking to drop his debt to you entirely, just to delay payment until he is in a better situation. Given that the dog was in your care (even if the injury was in no way your fault), it doesn't seem unreasonable to work out a payment plan with the roommate that gives him some breathing room with the medical bills.

If you offer to renegotiate the payment plan with the roommate so that he can first pay for his injured dog, before paying you, you will (a) be doing a good thing for both doggy and master (b) come across as sympathetic and helpful and (c) increase your chances of getting repaid anyway. If the relationship between you and the roommate deteriorates because of this situation, you're a lot less likely to ever see that money. If he feels like you're being helpful and understanding, he's going to want to pay you back. Given the debt seems like it is informal, how he feels about repayment is going to be an issue.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 7:53 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow... I'll never volunteer to dog-sit, dog-walk again, or ask the owner to sign a legal waiver. On the same note, I hope you get him to sign a paper that he owed you $1375.
posted by curiousZ at 7:55 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, when the airlines lose/kill/etc pets, they aren't responsible past a nominal dollar amount. a dog is considered property, like a camera or a bicycle. You might want to research down that line of thinking.

I can understand how easy it is for a dog to do something 'sudden and stupid' like get tangled up in a leash. Mine jumped out the hardly-even-rolled-down window of my moving car - gratefully she was okay - but it happened so fast I never even saw it happen.

I'm sure you already feel terrible, and I'm sure this is having a negative impact on your relationship with your roommate, but as mentioned above -- SIX THOUSAND for complications? was this a show dog or just an average, every day mutt?
posted by ChefJoAnna at 8:05 PM on October 26, 2010

HabeusCorpus: I tried working out a payment plan with him, and we agreed to one that I think was very lenient. He then proceeded not to send me the money he agreed to send me, and then sent me a letter that since the accident was my fault, not only would he pay me back when he felt like it, but shame on me for not offering to pay for the vet bills to begin with.
I don't know how to be more lenient without saying, "just pay me back whenever," which I don't want to do because I don't believe he'll pay me back unless I'm on his case about it.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 8:26 PM on October 26, 2010

Ah. Well now that you've fleshed out the scenario a little more, it seems like you've been plenty lenient about it. I would not enjoy getting such a letter.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 8:30 PM on October 26, 2010

re: what you just posted @habeuscorpus: IANAL or an accountant or anything like that.... but his debt to you is independent of what he thinks that you owe him for his dog. You didn't agree to paying more than the $350, which you don't require be reimbursed to you. You just want your $1375 paid to you. Have you set any deadline at all for that?

by the way, have you actually seen paperwork stating $6000 worth of vet bills?
posted by ChefJoAnna at 8:42 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

If the dog was injured due to "gross negligence" on your part THEN I'd think you are a bit responsible (but I doubt legally responsible). In this case it seem there was no negliogence - justa freaky accident that coul dhave happened to anyone. Hence no liability on your part.
posted by mary8nne at 6:30 AM on October 27, 2010

Hey this is gonna sound absolutely morbid, (and you should know that I'm a dog owner and lover, myself) but I would probably say to the guy "You made the decision to spend $6,000 on this dog, not me. I paid the initial visit to fix his leg, then you made the conscious decision to spend 6K on him... If you're so hard up for money, you should probably re-think your financial priorities."

I've had dogs my entire life, and I love my dog to death. That being said, I'd never risk being thrown out in the street because I can't make my rent/mortgage because I spent **6 thousand dollars** fixing my dog's leg.

That being said, I once spent over 600 dollars trying to save my pet rat from a respiratory infection. But there's a line there somewhere, and for me, 6K is way over the line.
posted by Glendale at 10:18 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

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