No emotional damages for grieving pet owners, Texas Supreme Court rules

David Yates Apr. 12, 2013, 4:32pm

The Texas Supreme Court has opined that state law prohibits pet owners from recovering emotional damages for the premature loss of their beloved furry companions. 

The court issued the opinion April 5, and while justices acknowledged the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed is genuine, emotional damage remains “uncompensable.”

The ruling stays true to an opinion crafted by the high court in 1891, which categorized dogs as personal property, thus disallowing non-economic damages.

“Texans love their dogs. 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,” the opinion, delivered by Justice Willett, states.

“We acknowledge the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed. Relational attachment is unquestionable. But it is also uncompensable. We reaffirm our long-settled rule … 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.”

Justices were tasked to decide whether to adhere to the “restrictive, 122-year-old precedent classifying pets as property for tort-law purposes, or to instead recognize a new common-law loss-of-companionship claim that allows noneconomic damages rooted solely in emotional attachment, a remedy the common law has denied those who suffer the wrongful death of a spouse, parent, or child, and is available in Texas only by statute,” the opinion states.

“Under Texas common law, the human-animal bond, while undeniable, is uncompensable, no matter how it is conceived in litigation,” the opinion states.

The packaging or labeling matters not: Recovery rooted in a pet owner’s feelings is prohibited.”

Strickland is represented in part by attorney Paul Boudloche of the Fort Worth law firm Mason & Boudloche.

The ruling stems from litigation brought by Tarrant County residents Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen, who sued Carla Strickland, alleging the woman’s negligence caused the death of their dog.

On June 2, 2009, the Medlen’s dog, Avery, escaped from their backyard and was picked up by animal control. Jeremy went to the animal shelter to retrieve Avery, but did not have enough money with him to pay the fees. He was told that he could return for the dog a week later and a “hold for owner” tag was placed on Avery’s cage notifying employees that the Medlens were going to return for Avery, court papers say.

In the meantime, on June 6, 2009, Strickland, a shelter employee, made a list of animals that would be euthanized the following day. She put Avery on the list, and he was put down the next day. When the Medlens returned for their dog a few days later, they learned of his unfortunate fate, court papers say.

During the litigation, court records show the trial court granted Strickland’s special exception, which argued sentimental or intrinsic value damages are not recoverable for the death of a dog, and ordered the plaintiffs to re-plead “a claim for damages recognized at law,” court papers say.

The Medlens filed an amended petition alleging a claim for “intrinsic value” damages. Strickland specially excepted again, and the trial court dismissed the Medlens’ lawsuit with prejudice.

However, on appeal, the Medlens successfully argued their dog had little market value and were due damages for intrinsic or sentimental value, court papers say.

The Second Court of Appeals reverse and remanded the trial court’s ruling, prompting Strickland to file an appeal with the Texas Supreme Court.

On Jan. 10 Justices heard oral arguments.

Groups that filed amicus briefs in the case include the No Kill Advocacy Center, Texas Veterinary Medical Association, Texas Civil Justice League, American Kennel Club, Texas Dog Commission and Texas Municipal League.

In its amicus letter, the TCJL says the Fort Worth Court of Appeals’ decision to allow damages based on the sentimental value of a pet disregards well-settled Texas law, places Texas jurisprudence far outside the national mainstream, and makes a radical policy change that should be left to the Texas Legislature.

“As other amici have amply documented, the law of Texas and the vast majority of states does not permit sentimental damages for the death of a pet,” the TCJL’s letter states.

“Moreover, if broad and potentially unlimited liability was imposed on pet owners, veterinary care professionals, animal shelters, local governments, motor vehicle owners and operators, and myriad other parties that may come into contact with a pet, the increased risk will be passed on in the form of substantially higher insurance premiums, medical and veterinary costs, and local taxes and fees, just to name a few.”

Bedford attorney Randall E. Turner is among counsel for the Medlens.

Supreme Court Case No. 12-0047

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