Texas Supreme Court Strikes Down “Sentimental Value” for Dogs

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Dogs will remain firmly entrenched as property in Texas, according to an opinion handed down today by the state’s supreme court. In a case closely followed by organizations on all sides of the animal personhood debate, the court ruled that although people form close bonds with their companion animals, they are not entitled to recover emotional damages when that pet is killed. Such damages, the court said, would place pets on the same legal level as spouses, parents, and children.

The case has its origins in 2009, when Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s mixed-breed dog Avery escaped from their backyard and was collared by Fort Worth animal control. Jeremy tried to recover the canine, but he didn’t have enough money to pay the fees. The shelter said it would hold the dog until he came back, but one of its workers, Carla Strickland, accidentally placed Avery on the euthanasia list, and the dog was put down. The Medlens sued Strickland for sentimental damages (since, as a mixed-breed the dog had no market value), winning in a Texas court of appeals in 2011. “The special value of ‘man’s best friend’ should be protected,” it ruled. The opinion caused a paradigm shift, reversing an 1891 state supreme court decision that held that when a dog was killed, owners could only collect for the pet’s “market value” and “special or pecuniary value”. In that case, three Newfoundlands were poisoned, and the court allowed $5 for the market value of each dog and an additional $20 each because the dogs had special training that allowed them to communicate the gender of approaching individuals. 

The 2011 court of appeals decision was emblematic of a growing openness among judges and legislators to consider cats and dogs more than mere property. Pets didn’t even merit that legal status until the turn of the twentieth century, when courts began to rule that dogs—and later cats—were not worthless objects, as the common law held, but rather property of their owners that had inherent value. By the latter half of the century, some lawmakers were going even further. In 1964, a the Supreme Court of Florida ruled that a woman could recover $3000 in damages, including compensation for “mental suffering” when her daschund was killed by a garbage collector.  In 1980, a New York judge allowed a woman to recover loss of companionship damages, which are usually restricted to spouses and children, when her German Shepherd died mysteriously at a kennel. And for the last couple of decades, courts have increasingly allowed divorcing couples to fight over the custody of beloved pets, giving the animals a status akin to children. Meanwhile, a number of states have drafted legislation allowing owners to collect thousands of dollars in non-economic damages for the loss of their pet.

Today’s supreme court decision, however, sets the clock back to 1891. In a unanimous opinion, the judges acknowledge that “Texans love their dogs” and that owners don’t view their pets as personal property, “but as beloved friends and confidants, and even family members.” But they said that allowing emotional damages for pets would raise their legal status above grandparents and human best friends, who can’t recover such damages when their grandchildren or friends are killed. “The Medlens request something remarkable,” the court said. “That pet owners have the same legal footing as those who lose a spouse, parent, or child.”

The court seems to have relied heavily on organizations that submitted advice in the form of so-called amicus briefs. These include the American Kennel Club, the Cat Fanciers’ Association, and the American Veterinary Medical Association. All argued that allowing non-economic damages for pets would hurt their industries. The AVMA, for example, has stated that permitting such damages would flood the courts with litigation, put vets out of business, and ultimately harm companion animals by reducing their access to care.

Ironically, the Medlins were not pushing for pet personhood. They just wanted Avery to have the same status as any other piece of irreplaceable property.Texas law allows the recovery of sentimental damages for the loss of family heirlooms, like wedding veils and jewelry. Why not for pets, they argued. Why would a taxidermied version of Avery be worth more than Avery himself? While the court acknowledged the irony, it said that allowing owners access to such damages would create legal headaches. Should only dogs and cats be eligible, it asked. What about fish and pythons? Should owners of a frail, 15-year-old mutt be allowed to collect more than those of a prize-winning purebred?

Still, the judges didn’t completely shut the door on pets achieving a more person-like status in the eyes of the law. “Social attitudes inexorably change,” they wrote, “and shifting public views may persuade the Legislature to extend wrongful-death actions to pets.” The question is, will it take another hundred years?

7 Comments

  1. avatar

    I’ve just received an e-mail from Randy Turner, the lawyer who represented the Medlens from the very beginning in this case. He was kind enough to share the following thoughts:

    “I was terribly disappointed with the court’s decision. The Medlens were devastated. They brought this lawsuit for the sole purpose of getting the Texas Supreme Court to recognize the true value we place on our companion animals. They never cared about personally recovering any compensation. When we initially won in the court of appeals the Medlen family was beaming. When I told them we had won Kathryn Medlen told me, ‘Avery is looking down from heaven, smiling; we are so glad that he did not die in vain.’ Today’s decision crushed them…

    “The court was just not ready to acknowledge that the role of companion animals in our society and the special value we place on them have drastically changed since 1891. Unfortunately, there is an innate resistance to change in the law and it can take a painfully long time before the law finally reflects the actual values and beliefs of the people….

    “I am encouraged that this case provoked so much public discussion and debate about the value of companion animals in our lives and how the law should treat them. I am hopeful that lawyers in other states will make similar attempts to get their courts to recognize the true value of animals. I also hope that people will push their legislatures to do the same. I really think that someday the laws will reflect our love and appreciation of our four-legged friends. But not today in Texas.”

  2. avatar

    Another comment just in from Joyce Tischler, the founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which has pushed for a greater legal status for pets and other animals. She e-mails her disappointment with the decision:

    “Very depressing news and a reminder of how far we still have to go.”

  3. avatar

    The Court was wrong, if you have a dog and treat it like a dog, you really shouldn’t have a dog! My dogs are very important members of my family. Not chattels!

  4. avatar

    Absolutely ridiculous!

  5. avatar

    1. The Medlins did not have the money to pay the shelter for fees? If you cannot afford to pay for your dog you should not own one. Period. Pets are expensive! Understand this. If the dog was hit by a car, would they have been able to afford the veterinary cost?? Furthermore, the Medlins lost their dog or it would not have ended up in a shelter. It could have been stolen or hit by a car without them knowing. In this case, they would not be able to sue for reasons of negligence. In the case of a child, the question of “how did your/you let your child run away?”, would be asked. Depending on the answer, child services may be involved.

    2. The code of federal regulations states that stolen property may not be transported, sold or used. There is also mention of situations, in federal and state laws, when shelters/USDA-APHIS may or may not euthanize a dog. Compensation for emotional damages couldn’t have been the only avenue for justice. If the law does not adequately safeguard your pet from euthanasia at the shelter, sounds like petitioning for change in law would be more accurate. Admittedly, I believe that compensation for purely emotional losses is ridiculous. When my grandfather died, I accepted it as a tragedy, not a way to advance monetarily.

    3. I absolutely love my dog, I take more pictures of him than I do my family, but I OWN my dog. No one is legally capable of taking him away from me and the state does not control how I provide for him – aka this is not a guardianship. As property, I am responsible for his care. This includes registering him with shelters for rabies, chipping him in the case that he gets lost, and teaching him to stay by my side on walks/ensuring that he doesn’t run away (some people require leashes). The word “property” does not decrease the importance of or love I have more my dog. Those who work at the shelters generally hope to adopt out all of the dogs possible, they are generally animal lovers and passionate about keeping/putting a dog in a good home. This situation sounds fishy.

    • avatar

      So what happens if you have a stray that shows up to your door starving and can’t afford expensive pet care? Do you take the animal in and do your best to provide or just close the door and hope it goes away?

      You need to be a bit more sympathetic in your opinions or stop judging before you have all the facts. We do not know all the facts in this case so it is important not to judge the poor people who lost their dog due to an unfortunate mistake. Where humans are involved mistakes will always happen.

  6. avatar

    My 2 dogs are a huge part of my family. They are not property.

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