Texas high court reaffirms pets are property

Reverses appellate court ruling that dog owner can recover ‘sentimental value’ damages
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BalancesThe Texas Supreme Court on April 5 reversed a controversial ruling by a state appellate court that would have allowed the owners of a wrongfully euthanized pet dog to sue for emotional damages.

“The court upheld a legal precedent that has served the people and animals of Texas well for over 100 years,” Dr. Jed Ford, Texas VMA president, said. “While animals play important roles in our lives, it was critical that the court maintain its position that noneconomic damages are unavailable for the loss of an animal. To have ruled otherwise would have had a dramatic negative impact on the practice of veterinary medicine in Texas and animal care in general.”

In its opinion, the high court attested that “Texans love their dogs. Throughout the Lone Star State, canine companions are treated—and treasured—not as mere personal property but as beloved friends and confidants, even family members.”

The court even sympathized with the grief of those whose companion animals are killed as a result of negligence. However, the justices held that the bond between man and animal does not negate a 122-year-old legal precedent that bars emotional damage claims for a pet’s death.

“Pets are property in the eyes of the law, and we decline to permit non-economic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings,” Justice Don Willett wrote. “True, a beloved companion dog is not a fungible, inanimate object like, say, a toaster. The term ‘property’ is not a pejorative but a legal descriptor, and its use should not be misconstrued as discounting the emotional attachment that pet owners undeniably feel.

“Nevertheless, under established legal doctrine, recovery in pet-death cases is, barring legislative reclassification, limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship.”

In June 2009 a mixed-breed dog named Avery escaped from owners Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen and was picked up by animal control. A shelter employee mistakenly euthanized the dog, and the Medlens sued to recover Avery’s intrinsic value, because the dog had little or no market value. When the trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, the family went to Fort Worth’s 2nd Court of Appeals.

The defense cited a case from 1891 in which the Texas Supreme Court ruled a dog’s value may be determined by either the animal’s market value or its usefulness to the owner.

The Medlens argued Texas law has a long tradition of allowing plaintiffs to recover special damages for the loss of personal property that has no market value but is irreplaceable and has sentimental value to the owner, such as a family photo album. The Medlens asked the appellate court to apply that same standard to Avery, because they were denied the dog’s companionship by an act of negligence.

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The 2nd Court agreed with the Medlens, and the defendant appealed to the Texas Supreme Court (see JAVMA, Jan. 15, 2012).

The high court determined that the appellate court decision would have a “peculiar” result, however, by allowing wrongful death damages for pets when state law limits such claims to human relationships between husband and wife, and parent and child.

“The Medlens request something remarkable: that pet owners have the same legal footing as those who lose a spouse, parent, or child,” Justice Willett wrote. “Moreover, they seek damages they plainly could not seek if other close relatives (or friends) were negligently killed: siblings, step-children, grandparents, dear friends, and others.

“Losing one’s pet, even one considered family, should not invite damages unavailable if an actual human family member were lost. Put differently, the Medlens seek emotion-based damages for the death of ‘man’s best friend’ when the law denies such damages for the death of a human best friend. For all their noble and praiseworthy qualities, dogs are not human beings, and the Texas common-law tort system should not prioritize human-animal relationships over intimate human-human relationships, particularly familial ones.”

The Texas VMA and AVMA are among several organizations that filed amicus curiae briefs with the court opposing noneconomic damages for pet loss.

“We think the court got it right,” said Adrian Hochstadt, director of the AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department. “We sympathize with the Medlens’ loss and recognize their bond with Avery, but the court was correct in not creating a sweeping new remedy that would ultimately raise the cost of pet ownership and threaten access to care.”

The circumstances of the appeal were unusual. The defendant had considered dropping the appeal because of the associated costs, but then the TVMA stepped in with financial support, given the high profile and importance of this legal precedent. Initially, the AVMA and AVMA PLIT contributed $20,000 and $10,000, respectively, to help cover the state association’s legal expenses. The final bill of $183,364 was much higher than anyone anticipated, however, and in April, the AVMA and PLIT each gave the TVMA an additional $25,000.

That many animal-interest organizations opposed reinterpreting Texas law clearly held sway with the justices. “Appreciating this case’s significant implications, numerous animal advocacy organizations have submitted amicus curiae briefs,” Willet wrote. “And while there is no unanimous ‘pro pet’ position—organizations committed to animal well-being are arrayed on both sides—the vast majority of pet-friendly groups oppose the Medlens’ request for emotion-based damages, lest greater liability raise the cost of pet ownership and ultimately cause companion animals more harm than good.”

While the state Supreme Court declined to depart from the conventional understanding of Texas tort law, it did leave the door open for lawmakers to do so.

“The Legislature has passed a wrongful-death statute for humans; it has not (yet) for animals,” according to the court opinion. “Given the competing public-policy considerations, we believe if there is to be expanded recovery in pet-death cases, it, too, should be confronted legislatively, not judicially.”