If you live in Texas, your dog is not worth much. In fact, the Texas Supreme Court essentially agrees that your dog would be worth more if it were taxidermied, as opposed to its living and breathing counterpart.
Why am I asking this question? Well, I’m an attorney in “real life” and when browsing online this morning, I came across the April 5, 2013 Texas Supreme Court decision of Strickland v. Medlen, 397 S.W.3d 184 (2013). Don’t worry, I’m going to keep this short and sweet, and in layman’s terms. I will also forego the legal citations. If you are interested in reading this decision, you can find it here.
[Note: I agonized over bringing my professional life into my blog, but it’s who I am. To that end, however, I have to append this blog post with some legalese, which will also be included on my disclaimer page.]
About the case:
In June 2009, the Medlen family’s mixed-breed dog, Avery, escaped from the backyard and was picked up by animal control. The family called the shelter, explaining that they needed to get money together to retrieve their dog. As a result, the shelter hung a “hold for owner” sign on Avery’s cage, indicating that the pet’s family was coming to get him. Unfortunately, a shelter worker mistakenly put Avery on the euthanasia list, and he was put to sleep two days before the father and his two children came to take Avery home. Devastated, the family filed suit against the shelter worker. Essentially, the family sought damages (money) based on intrinsic value since the dog had little to no market value and could not be replaced.
The lower court dismissed the suit, with the appellate court reversing, holding that the “special value of ‘man’s best friend’ should be protected.”
On appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, the court was asked to decide whether emotional-injury damages are recoverable for the negligent destruction of a dog.
After careful consideration of property law and the fondness of American’s for their pets, the Texas Supreme Court ultimately held that the family could not pursue emotional injury damages against the shelter worker. In so doing, the Court reviewed its holding from a case in 1891 in which it declared pets as “property” for this type of scenario. Specifically, damages in dog–death cases are limited to market value, if any, or “special or pecuniary value” based on the dog’s “usefulness and services” – that is, their economic value. When considering the dog’s usefulness, the court looks at the types of service that the dog provides (think of a watchdog providing security services).
In analyzing this case, and comparing it to prior holdings regarding the value of one-of-a-kind items where sentimental value was indeed considered, the Court acknowledged the family’s argument that a taxidermied Avery could be worth more than a living and breathing Avery. Regardless, the Court was unpersuaded.
Significant to its determination was not only its prior decision, but also the potential for sky-high monetary awards based on the subjective sentimental value of man’s best friend, which could be astronomical. High awards could create a cottage industry in pet ligitation, as argued by the American Kennel Club in its amicus curae brief, which would cause increased liability in veterinarians and any other pet care provider, which would cause an increased cost in pet care. Additionally, allowing recovery for emotional injury would lead to increased litigation when pets are killed in car accidents, and other fatal situations. The Court further reasoned that it cannot allow emotional injury claims for pets when it has denied emotional injury claims for an individual’s loss of its siblings, grandparents and dear friends. The Court punted to the state’s legislature, stating that if it was in the best interest of the state to create a law allowing for such recovery for a pet, it should do so.
I’m sure any pet owner would beg to differ with the Texas Supreme Court. Were this my family, we would be devastated beyond comprehension. This, to me, is the stuff that nightmares are made of. As a litigator, however, I see merit in the Court’s reasoning. Let’s face it, we live in a very litigious society. The possibility of receiving an award based on the immeasurable love of our pet would be a strong attraction for many, and the court system would explode with pet litigation. I hate to admit it, but there are more important things to be decided by the justice system.
It should be noted that not every state shares Texas’s view when it comes to damages sought for the death of a pet. The Texas Supreme Court noted the following:
- In 2000, Tennessee enacted legislation authorizing non-economic damages, up to $5,000, when someone negligently or intentionally kills a companion animal. The law narrowly defines “pet” as a domesticated dog or cat, limits recovery to “the deceased pet’s owner or caretaker,” and protects veterinarians and animal shelters from negligence liability.
- The Maryland Legislature has likewise limited damages in pet cases, restricting damages to fair market value plus the necessary costs of veterinary care, not to exceed $7,500 total.
- An Illinois statute narrowly allows non-economic damages, allowing emotional distress recovery only in cases of aggravated cruelty or torture or when an animal is injured or killed in bad faith when seized or impounded.
So how do we reconcile this with the sale of a Tibetan mastiff for $1.5 million? Well, that’s more of an economics question based on supply and demand and the buyer’s assessment of the value, and agreement to purchase the dog for that price. That also occurred in 2011 outside of the United States. Imputing a value-based recovery on a negligent shelter worker is, however, a dog of a different color.
So what do you think? Did the court get it right? If you had to say, what is your dog worth?