The owner of a dog accidentally euthanized by a Fort Worth animal shelter cannot sue for the sentimental value of the family pet, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
State law limits the value of a pet, no matter how deeply loved, to its replacement cost when legal damages are tallied, Justice Don Willett wrote for the unanimous court.
“Pets are property in the eyes of the law, and we decline to permit noneconomic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings,” the court ruled.
“True, a beloved companion dog is not a fungible, inanimate object like, say, a toaster,” Willett wrote, adding that the term “property” was a legal description unrelated to the emotional attachment felt for a pet. “Measuring the worth of a beloved pet is unquestionably an emotional determination — what the animal means to you and your family — but measuring a pet’s value is a legal determination.”
The case began as a lawsuit by Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen, whose 6-year-old mixed-breed dog, Avery, escaped from their backyard during a 2009 thunderstorm. Jeremy Medlen found his dog at the city animal shelter but didn’t have enough money to pay the fees. Employees assured him that Avery would be protected from euthanasia for one week, but four days later, the dog was dead.
Arguing that Avery was irreplaceable yet had little market value, the Medlens sought to recover an unspecified award based on the pet’s sentimental value.
The trial judge dismissed the lawsuit based on an 1891 Texas Supreme Court decision that allows owners to sue only for the market value of a dead dog or, at best, a special value based on “the usefulness and services of the dog.”
The Fort Worth appeals court reinstated the Medlens’ lawsuit, ruling that more recent Supreme Court decisions established that “sentimental damages may now be recovered for the loss or destruction of all types of personal property.”
But in its decision Friday, the state Supreme Court said its 1891 ruling still applies. Although recent rulings allowed owners to seek compensation for the loss of a unique family heirloom based on the nostalgia it evokes, an owner’s attachment to a pet is based on far different, “here-and-now benefits” such as company, protection and recreation, Willett wrote.
Permitting sentiment-based damages for destroyed or injured pets also would elevate animals above other human relationships in the courtroom, Willett added, noting that loss of companionship is a factor in personal injury claims for only two types of relationships: husband-wife and parent-child.
“The Medlens request something remarkable: that pet owners have the same legal footing as those who lose a spouse, parent or child. Moreover, they seek damages they plainly could not seek if other close relatives (or friends) were negligently killed,” the court said.
“Losing one’s pet, even one considered family, should not invite damages unavailable if an actual human family member were lost,” the court said. “We acknowledge the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed. Relational attachment is unquestionable. But it is also uncompensable.”
The case is Strickland v. Medlen, 12-0047.