Your Dog Might Be Worth Less Than Your IPhone

In a long-awaited decision in Strickland v. Medlen, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that pet owners can be compensated only for their animal’s market worth – not their sentimental value – even when a pet’s death is caused by somebody’s negligence. So, for those owners who have adopted no-breed mutts, such market value might be less than the cost of a new cellphone.

The facts of Strickland, much publicized in the media, were such:  the Medlens’ dog, Avery, escaped from their backyard and was picked up by animal control.  The Medlens went to the animal shelter to retrieve Avery, but did not have enough money to pay the fees. They were told to return a week later and a “hold for owner” tag was placed on Avery’s cage. Several days after the tag was placed, Carla Strickland, a shelter employee, put Avery on the list of dogs to be euthanized and he was put down. When the Medlens returned for their dog, they learned of his unfortunate fate. The Medlens then sued Strickland for negligence, claiming damages to compensate them for the unique sentimental or intrinsic value that Avery had.

Texas has long recognized that dogs are considered personal property. Typically, you cannot recover emotional damages for destruction of personal property – only the market value.  However, where personal property is one-of-a-kind or irreplaceable and carries with it a sentimental value (e.g., old family photographs or heirlooms that  have little market value), the damages for the destruction of such property might take into consideration the “feelings of the owner.”  The Medlens argued that this body of law allowed them to recover sentimental value associated with their dog.  The trial court rejected their argument, but was reversed by the Second District Court of Appeals. Strickland appealed.

On appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Court arguing that “awarding sentimental damages for the death of an animal may ultimately harm pets by driving up the basics costs of pet ownership placing it out of reach for some.”  Additionally, Texas Municipal LeagueTexas City Attorneys Association, and City of Arlington submitted a joint amici curiae brief arguing that recognizing sentimental value damages arising out of pets’ deaths would elevate the duties of parties who deal (voluntarily and involuntarily) with other people’s pets, and the associated costs will be passed on to taxpayers and pet owners.  American Kennel Club, Cat Fanciers’ Association, Animal Health Institute, American Veterinary Medical Association, National Animal Interest Alliance, American Pet Products Association, and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council also filed a joint amici curiae brief arguing against allowing emotion-based damages for pet deaths because of the impact it would have on the costs associated with pet care.  Even Texas Civil Justice League, a non-profit association of Texas businesses, health care providers, and professional and trade associations, chimed in with its own amicus brief reiterating the same arguments.

After considering the Medlens’ and Strickland’s arguments, as well as the amici curiae briefs, the Texas Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that non-economic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings about the dog were NOT allowed under Texas law.

The Court noted that while “losing man’s best friend is undoubtfully sorrowful,” dog owners cannot recover emotion-based damages for their loss even when their companions are negligently killed.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN for DOG OWNERS:  If your beloved Buddy runs away from the dog daycare and gets run over by a car because an employee forgot to lock the door, or your vet prescribes Buddy a wrong medication that causes his death or he botches Buddy’s surgery, or (insert a multitude of negligent pet care scenarios, including the one in Strickland), all you can recover as the pet owner is the market value of your dog.

If it’s a pure-bread and you have a receipt for his/her purchase, you can probably recover the purchase cost.  If it’s a trained dog that provides certain services, you can probably recover the value of such services.  However, if it’s “just” a family mutt, with no recognized pedigree or special skills valued in the market, you might be getting next to nothing in damages from a pet care provider, even if s/he were found negligent.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN for PET CARE FACILITIES.  The law remains at status quo. Nothing will change until Texas passes a statute akin to the wrongful death statute that allows people to recover emotional damages for deaths of their immediate relatives.  Given the amount of amici curiae briefs filed in this case and the lobby interests of the pet care industry, a passage of such statute in the near future is highly unlikely.

For more information, contact Leiza Dolghih.

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