Texas Supreme Court could mull non-economic damages in cases of negligence
FORT WORTH, TEXAS —The Texas Supreme Court may listen to arguments in a high-profile legal case that would allow emotional damages after a mistaken euthanasia of a lost pet by a shelter worker.
Veterinarians fear the outcome of this case could set precedent as it relates to court awards for emotional damages in cases of negligence.
The appeal, filed Jan. 17 by Carla Strickland, states that the November 2011 decision by Texas' Second District Court of Appeals in favor of pet owners Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen creates a "new and independent cause of action—loss of companionship for the wrongful death of a pet."Referred to in the appeal as a "sweeping change in animal law," Strickland's attorney John H. Cayce, Jr., a retired Second Court of Appeals chief justice, says the appeals court's ruling would allow pet owners greater damages recovery than is available for the loss of some close human relatives.
"Although dogs are beloved companions, they should not be placed into this intimate familial category as a matter of public policy. To do so would allow damage claims with no sensible or just stopping point, ultimately affecting the quality and costs of pet services to the detriment of pets and their owners, as well as other business interests in the state," Cayce writes. "While the court may be understandably sympathetic to the plaintiffs' loss of pet companionship, it should defer to the Texas Legislature to create a remedy for it."
Cayce amended the appeal Feb. 2, adding that, if the court decides to hear the appeal, there are other arguments that can and will be made against the appeals court's decision.
Veterinarians are also fearful the appeals court's decision could set a negative precedent that would drive up veterinary malpractice costs, according to the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA), which has vowed to support the Texas Supreme Court appeal efforts.
"Our feeling is that there's deeper, unintended consequences that could result from this type of ruling," Elizabeth Choate, JD, director of government relations/general counsel for TVMA, said after the November ruling was issued. Choate says the association is worried the decision could drive up the cost of care for pet owners and the cost of doing business for veterinarians.
TVMA could not be reached by press time for comment on the extent of its support in the Supreme Court appeal, but Choate told DVM Newsmagazine in December that the association may offer financial support or assistance to Strickland's legal team.
The case centers on the escape and subsequent accidental euthanization of the Medlen's dog, Avery. The dog was picked up by animal control after escaping the family's backyard, but when they went to retrieve the dog, they didn't have enough money. They were told they could return by June 10 with the fee and the dog would be held with a tag on his cage notifying shelter employees that the dog should not to be euthanized. On June 6, the shelter worker Strickland mistakenly placed Avery on a list to be euthanized the following day. When the Medlens returned to collect Avery, they found out he had been euthanized. The couple sued the shelter worker alleging that "her negligence proximately caused Avery's death," according to court records. They sued for Avery's sentimental or intrinsic value. The trial court ordered the Medlens to file for damages recognized by law, and the couple amended their claim for "intrinsic damages" only. The trial judge dismissed the lawsuit.
The Medlens argued in their appeal that the Texas Supreme Court has repeatedly said that damages could be awarded for personal property with little or no market value based on its intrinsic or sentimental value.
The appeals court's decision could allow the case to return to trial court, where Strickland may file a motion to dismiss on the grounds of governmental immunity, according to court records.
Cayce is asking the Texas Supreme Court to not only reverse the decision of the court of appeals, but also to dismiss the Medlens' claims.
The Medlens have the opportunity to respond to the appeal before the Supreme Court makes any decisions, but they had not done so as of press time.