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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Lawsuits Can’t Recover Sentimental Pet Value

AUSTIN (CN) - A couple whose dog was mistakenly euthanized cannot sue for the sentimental value of their lost pet, the Texas Supreme Court ruled, ending a case closely watched by pet owners and veterinarians for its liability implications.

Fort Worth animal control had collected Avery, an 8-year-old Labrador mix, after it escaped from the backyard of Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen in June 2009.

Though Jeremy Medlen found Avery at the shelter, he did not have enough cash in hand to pay the retrieval fees. He was told he could return the next day and that the shelter would place a hold-for-owner tag on Avery's cage to prevent it from being euthanized.

Carla Strickland, one of the shelter's workers, somehow overlooked the tag, however, and put Avery on the euthanasia list.

After discovering their dog had been put to sleep, the Medlens sued Strickland for "sentimental or intrinsic" damages.

A Tarrant County judge dismissed the suit after finding that state law allowed the Medlens to recover only Avery's market value, not sentimental value.

The Texas Supreme Court intervened after the 2nd Court of Appeals reversed in 2011. Its conclusion Friday reaffirms 122-year-old precedent of classifying pets as property under tort law and its refusal to recognize a new common-law claim for damages rooted solely in an owner's subjective emotional attachment.

The 25-page opinion opens with Lord Byron's "Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog," and quickly makes another literary reference to the emotional bonds between humans and canines.

"Texans love their dogs," Justice Don Willett wrote for the court. "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. Given the richness that companion animals add to our everyday lives, losing 'man's best friend' is undoubtedly sorrowful. Even the gruffest among us tears up (every time) at the end of Old Yeller."

Trying not to minimize "the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed," Willett said that relational attachment is nevertheless "uncompensable."

"We reaffirm our long-settled rule which tracks the overwhelming weight of authority nationally, plus the bulk of amicus curiae briefs from several pet-welfare organizations (who understand the deep emotional bonds between people and their animals): 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," he wrote (parentheses in original).

Taking great pains to draw a distinction between property, Willett emphasized that a "beloved companion," such as a dog, is not a fungible and inanimate object, such as 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," he wrote. "Nevertheless, under established legal doctrine, recover yin pet-death cases is, barring legislative reclassification, limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship."

Willett noted that several animal welfare groups have argued that allowing such damages would negatively impact pet welfare.

"For example, the American Kennel Club, joined by the Cat Fanciers' Association and other pro-animal nonprofits, worry that 'pet litigation will become a cottage industry,' exposing veterinarians, shelter and kennel workers, animal-rescue workers, even dog sitters, to increased liability: 'Litigation would arise when pets are injured in car accidents, police actions, veterinary visits, shelter incidents, protection of livestock and pet-on-pet aggression, to name a few,'" the opinion states. "As risks and costs rise, there would be fewer free clinics for spaying and neutering, fewer shelters taking in animals, fewer services like walking and boarding, and fewer people adopting pets, leaving more animals abandoned and ultimately put down."

Willett further noted that the court has rejected loss-of-consortium damages for close human relatives or friends who have been negligently killed, yet the Medlens are asking for the same damages for pets.

"Losing one's pet, even one considered family should not invite damages unavailable if an actual human family member were lost," the opinion states. "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 humananimal relationships over intimate human-human relationships, particularly familial ones. Analogous would be anomalous."

Awarding such damages could create a slippery slope in further determining damages for other pets and "invite seemingly arbitrary judicial line-drawing," something the court should not do, according to the ruling.

"After all, people form genuine bonds with a menagerie of animals, so which 'beloved family pets; (the court of appeals' description) would merit such preferred treatment?" the opinion asks (parentheses in original). "Domesticated dogs and cats only?

"Furry, but not finned or feathered? What about goldfish? Pythons? Cockatiels? There seems to be no cogent stopping point, at least none that doesn't resemble judicial legislation. Similarly, while statutory damage caps exist in various types of cases involving people, the court of appeals' decision leaves matters wholly unconfined. Such broad, unstructured liability would invite peculiar results."

Ultimately, the Legislature is far better suited to consider the public policy implications that the Medlens implicate, much like it did when it passed the state's wrongful death statute for humans, the court concluded.

"The difficulties of measuring damages for the loss of human life and identifying the beneficiaries entitled to recover were deemed by the common law too great," Willett thinks wrote. "Because the judiciary was an imperfect decider, courts decided legislatures should decide. And our Legislature did so, authorizing a statutory wrongful-death action for reasons it was better suited to gauge. Having historically declined to recognize a common law action for the loss of a human, the common law should not, for mostly the same reasons, recognize one for the loss of a pet."

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