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Insurance coverage for pets in car accidents

Pets ride in cars all the time, but what if they're injured in a car accident? Whose car insurance pays to treat their injuries? The answer depends on the cause of the accident.

Riding in cars can be dangerous for pets (as well as distracting to the driver), especially because they ride without the benefit of seat belts. If someone crashes into you and causes injuries to your pet, you're entitled to make a "third-party claim" on their policy for your pet's medical bills. That's because their liability insurance must put you "back where you were" before the accident.

If you are at-fault in an accident in which your pet is injured, you'll want to check your auto insurance policy for exclusions. Say you crash into another car or a fence: Collision insurance pays for the repairs to your own vehicle. But you may have an exclusion on your collision insurance for damage to personal property that you are transporting, whether it's your antique vase or your pet. If your policy has such an exclusion, you won't have a valid claim. For example, State Farm says that its policies don't provide coverage for pet injuries.

Tips for traveling by car with pets

Cats should be in a cage or in a special carrier to allow them to feel secure and prevent them from crawling under your feet while you’re driving.

A dog that must ride in a truck bed should be in a protective kennel that is fastened to the truck bed.

Dogs riding in a car should not ride in the passenger seat if it is equipped with an airbag, and should not be allowed to sit on the driver's lap.

Harnesses, tethers and other accessories to secure pets during car travel are available at most pet stores.

Pets should not be allowed to ride with their heads outside car windows. Particles of dirt or other debris can enter the eyes, ears and nose, causing injury or infection.

Source: American Veterinary Medical Association

In this scenario, if you don't carry collision coverage, you must pay for all damage from the accident, including your car and pet.

However, some insurers do offer coverage. Progressive Insurance will pay up to $1,000 toward medical bills for your dog or cat if they're injured when you're in a car accident. Progressive's Pet Injury coverage is automatically included in your collision coverage without an increase on your car insurance rates.

Liability insurance for pet injuries

Perhaps a friend visits and your dog decides to rest under his car. Then, unknowingly, your friend backs over your pooch. Is your visitor liable for your dog's injuries? Yes, he is, but not under the bodily injury section of his auto policy. Bodily injury pays out for injuries sustained by any "one person" in an accident. Your pet doesn't qualify as a person so he's not covered by this portion of the policy.

However, for insurance purposes, your pet qualifies as your "personal property," and you have the right to be "put back where you were" before the accident — in this case, meaning having a healthy dog. You'd have the right to make a claim on your friend's auto insurance policy to cover your dog's medical bills, just as you would have the right to make a claim if he backed over your lawnmower.

Car insurance and the death of a pet

Certainly pets are part of the "family," and the death of a beloved pet can lead to extreme grief. But your pet's status as your "personal property" may limit your options for compensation if someone causes an accident that kills your pet. State laws do not recognize the loss of personal property as valid claims for "loss of companionship" compensation, unlike the loss of a spouse. In the event your pet is killed in an accident, you can likely make a claim only for the "market value" of your pet.

Some courts have allowed damages for deceased pets to go beyond "market value" by applying "pecuniary value" or "special value," which applies to personal property that has no ascertainable market value.

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