Texas court says pet dog has sentimental value

Reinterprets precedent in light of pets' 'special position' in family
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gavelA Texas appellate court recently ruled that state law entitles the owners of a wrongfully euthanized dog to recover "sentimental" or "intrinsic" damages from a defendant for the loss of the pet.

The decision by Fort Worth's 2nd Court of Appeals overturning a lower court's dismissal of the case is a novel interpretation of a 120-year-old precedent from the Texas Supreme Court holding that plaintiffs could recover only an animal's market value.

"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners. Today, we interpret timeworn supreme court law in light of subsequent court law to acknowledge that the special value of 'man's best friend' should be protected," according to the 2nd Court's opinion, issued Nov. 3, 2011.

Proponents of sentimental damages for pet loss consider the Texas court's decision to be a recognition of the importance of animals in modern society. But critics argue that the liability associated with such emotional pain and suffering claims would send the costs of pet services skyrocketing and ultimately harm animals by making veterinary care unaffordable for many pet owners.

The Texas VMA and AVMA, along with several pet-related industry associations, have filed briefs with the 2nd Court requesting the court reconsider its decision.

"If this becomes the law of the land, it will lead to higher costs to own a pet, disproportionally hurting middle-class and low-income pet owners. Who will pay for those higher damage awards? The rest of us pet owners, of course," said Adrian Hochstadt, AVMA assistant director of state legislative and regulatory affairs. "The obvious consequences will include fewer people being able to own pets and, unfortunately, more animal abandonment."

The case stems from a lawsuit brought by Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen against Carla Strickland. Around June 2, 2009, the Medlen's dog Avery escaped from their backyard and was picked up by animal control. Jeremy went to the animal shelter to retrieve Avery but didn't have enough money with him to pay the fees. He was told he could return for the dog June 10, and a "hold for owner" tag was placed on Avery's cage.

On June 6, Strickland, a shelter employee, made a list of animals that would be euthanized the following day. She put Avery on the list, despite the "hold for owner" tag, and the dog was euthanized the next day. When the Medlens returned to claim Avery, they learned what had happened.

The Medlens sued Strickland to recover Avery's sentimental or intrinsic value, because the dog had little or no market value. Strickland objected on the grounds that such damages are not recoverable for a dog's death. The trial judge agreed and ordered the Medlens to amend their pleadings for a claim recognized by law. The Medlens did so but reasserted they were seeking damages for Avery's "intrinsic value" only. Strickland objected again, the trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the Medlens appealed to the 2nd Court.

In responding to the appeal, Strickland referred the 2nd Court to Heiligmann v. Rose, an 1891 case that she contended demonstrates Texas law treats dogs differently than other personal property. In that case, the Texas Supreme Court awarded damages to the owners of three dogs poisoned by Heiligmann. The court ruled a dog's value may be determined by "either a market value, if the dog has any, or some special or pecuniary value to the owner, that may be ascertained by reference to the usefulness and services of the dog." Several courts of appeals have reaffirmed that decision, Strickland added.

The Medlens argued that the Texas Supreme Court has repeatedly held that when personal property has little or no market value, damages can be awarded on the basis of the property's intrinsic or sentimental value. The Medlens asked the court to apply that same standard to Avery, because they valued the dog's companionship, which they contend thay have been denied on account of alleged negligence.

The 2nd Court agreed and remanded the case to the trial court. Justice Lee Gabriel, joined by the two other judges on the panel, stated the court is "duty-bound" to interpret Heiligmann in light of subsequent supreme court decisions that have developed the law concerning intrinsic value damages.

Heiligmann, Gabriel wrote, does not say special value is derived solely from a dog's usefulness or services, nor does it state what should be considered when assessing that value. "It certainly did not rule out companionship or sentimental value," the justice wrote, adding, "We believe that the special value alluded to by the Heiligmann court may be derived from the attachment that an owner feels for his pet."

The 2nd Court held that logically it did not make sense to award sentimental damages for certain types of personal property, such as family letters and photographs, but not for a pet dog. "According to Strickland's position, intrinsic damages could be awarded for a sentimental photograph of a family and its dog, but not the dog itself," Gabriel wrote.

The justice called Heiligmann "ahead of its time" for recognizing that dogs "were of special value to the owner," a value the 2nd Court holds to be greater than market value. "Because of the special position pets hold in the family, we see no reason why existing law should not be interpreted to allow recovery in the loss of a pet at least to the same extent as other personal property," Gabriel wrote.

Strickland is appealing the Texas court's decision. In a brief petitioning the justices to reverse themselves, the American Kennel Club, The Cat Fanciers' Association, Animal Health Institute, American Pet Products Association, and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council say the verdict "isolates the Second Court of Texas in American jurisprudence and … violated Texas Supreme Court law."

A consequence of the conflicting Texas court opinions is that the true worth of pets is unclear, according to Hochstadt, and he expects the state supreme court will consider the case to resolve the matter. Otherwise, he predicts the state legislature will want to pass legislation clarifying the issue.