Texas Supreme Court rejects emotional damages case

State high court upholds 122-year-old precedent maintaining pets as personal property.
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Apr 08, 2013
By dvm360.com staff

In a decision that leaves the legal landscape little changed, the Texas Supreme Court on April 5 ruled against Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen’s claim to emotional damages as a result of losing their dog, Avery, in 2009.

The state high court’s opinion, written by Justice Don Willett, reads, “We acknowledge the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed. Relational attachment is unquestionable. But it is also uncompensable. We confirm our long-settled rule.”

The court’s precedent was established in an 1891 case that categorizes dogs as personal property, which eliminates the possibility of non-economic damages rooted in subjective, emotional feelings. “The term ‘property’ is not a pejorative but a legal descriptor, and its use should not be misconstrued as discounting the emotional attachment that pet owners undeniably feel,” Willett’s opinion states. “Nevertheless, under established legal doctrine, recovery in pet-death cases is, barring legislative reclassification, limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship.”

The Texas Veterinary Medical Association supported the decision in a press release April 5.

"This is a great decision for pet owners and animals in general, and the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) commends the court in making such a decision. Veterinarians devote their lives to caring for and preventing the suffering of animals and without a doubt understand the deep bond that develops between people and their pets. They sympathize with families over the losses of their animals, but they were also aware that such a dramatic change to the way that courts in Texas apply the law would have had vast unintended consequences," said the TVMA in the press release.

The Medlens’ case began when Avery escaped from their backyard and was picked up by local animal control officers. When Jeremy Medlen went to retrieve Avery, he didn’t have enough money to pay the fee.

He was told he could return by June 10 with the money and the dog would be held with a tag on his cage notifying shelter employees not to euthanize the dog. On June 6, shelter worker Carla 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 Medlens sued Strickland, requesting intrinsic and sentimental value for the dog. However, when the case went to trial court, the judge ruled to dismiss, saying the Medlens hadn’t stated “a claim for damages recognized as law.” The Medlens appealed this ruling to the Second District Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial judge’s decision and remanded the case back to trial court. Strickland appealed that decision in January 2012 to the state’s Supreme Court, asking it to reverse the appellate court decision and dismiss the case from trial court.

This decision comes after New Jersey and California both recently saw cases that sought emotional damages for pet loss or damage, with New Jersey ruling that animals were property and owners couldn’t claim emotional damages, while a California appeals court upheld $50,000 in emotional damages (although the California verdict was based not on negligence but trespassing).