The Texas Supreme Court loves puppies just as much as most people do.
But despite issuing a unanimous opinion that memorializes the world’s love for canines — complete with quotes from Lord Byron and Aldous Huxley about that very topic — the high court will not allow anyone to recover "emotion-based" damages for the loss of a dog in Texas. That’s according to the April 5 ruling in Carla Strickland v. Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen.
In Medlen, Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen sued Carla Strickland, an employee at the city of Fort Worth animal shelter, alleging she negligently proximately caused the death of their family’s dog, Avery, by mistakenly euthanizing the dog after he escaped from their back yard. The Medlens sued for "sentimental or intrinsic" damages because Avery had little or no market value and was irreplaceable.
A trial court dismissed the case, but Fort Worth’s 2nd Court of Appeals ruled that dog owners can recover damages from a defendant based on the "sentimental value" related to the loss of their pet.
Strickland appealed, and amici took notice, sending the high court briefs on every conceivable angle of the highly emotional dispute [See "High Court to Weigh 'Sentimental Value' Damages for Loss of Dog," Texas Lawyer, January 7, 2013, page 1.]
"We acknowledge the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed. Relational attachment is unquestionable. But it is also uncompensable," wrote Justice Don Willett.
"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.
Value, Not Emotion
Nevertheless, dog owners can recover for the loss of "value" of their pets as long as the owner’s relationship is kept out of that equation, the high court ruled.
To reach that conclusion, the high court had to parse Heiligmann v. Rose, its 1891 decision upholding $75 in damages awarded to a plaintiff for the poisoning of his three "well trained" Newfoundland dogs.
Heiligmann allows dog owners to recover damages for "market value, if the dog has any" or "some special or pecuniary value to the owner, that may be ascertained by reference to the usefulness and services of the dog."
The decision never references any evidence regarding "companionship or owner affection" Willett wrote.
"In short, Heiligmann‘s use of the word ‘special’ does not authorize ‘special damages’ and does not refer generically to a dog’s ability to combat loneliness, ease depression, or provide security. The valuation criteria is not emotional and subjective; rather it is commercial and objective," Willett wrote.
John Cayce, a partner in Fort Worth’s Kelly Hart & Hallman who represents Strickland, says he’s pleased with the decision.
"The decision recognizes the special relationship dog owners like myself have with our pets, but it balances the value of that relationship against society’s weightier need for a commonsense limit on the type of damages a grieving owner is allowed to recover when their pet’s death is caused by someone else’s negligence," Cayce says. "No court in the country has handled this issue in a more compassionate, fair, and thoughtful way as the court did in this case."
Randy Turner, a partner in the Bedford office of Bailey & Galyen who represents the Medlens, says his clients were "devastated" by the decision and Kathryn Medlen burst into tears when he informed her they’d lost the case.
"They never cared about money," Turner says. "They only wanted the law to recognize the value we place on our companion animals.”
"This was a huge loss for our four-legged friends. Unfortunately, the court decided that sentimental value should be allowed for inanimate objects, but not a pet," Turner says. "The court even talked about how Texas law would allow sentimental value for a taxidermied dog if it was destroyed, but not for a live dog if it was killed. I am still scratching my head over that one."