Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Texas heard oral arguments in Strickland v. Medlen, a case that may redefine how damages are calculated when personal property damage or destruction is at issue.
In June of 2009, Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s dog, Avery, escaped from their backyard without the Medlens knowing. Avery was later found and taken to a local animal shelter by animal control. Jeremy Medlen went to retrieve his dog from the shelter, but did not have the money to pay the fees associated with Avery’s stay. Jeremy was told by a shelter employee that he could return with the funds in a few days, the shelter would hold on to Avery until then, and the shelter would place a “hold for owner” tag on Avery in the meantime. However, after Jeremy left, Carla Strickland, a shelter employee, made a list of animals to be euthanized the following day, and included Avery on that list, contrary to the “hold for owner” tag. When Jeremy returned to recover Avery, and pay the shelter fees, Avery had already been put down.
The Medlens sued Strickland, alleging that her negligence proximately caused Avery’s death, and requested “intrinsic and sentimental” damages. Strickland objected to the claim for damages, and claimed Texas law does not allow for intrinsic or sentimental damages arising from the death of an animal, pet or otherwise. The trial court agreed with Strickland and dismissed the case. The Medlens appealed.
The Second Court of Appeals of Texas disagreed with the trial court and reversed its decision. In Texas, the courts have long allowed recovery of sentimental damages in cases where the property that was destroyed, lost, or otherwise damaged had no value outside of intrinsic, sentimental value. The classic case on point is when family heirlooms are at issue. The Second Court of Appeals likened the connection a person has to family heirlooms with the connection between a person and their dog. In most instances, as with heirlooms, family pets have little or no value aside from their intrinsic value to their owners. The death of a dog in the eyes of its owner is clearly much different than in the eyes of a passerby.
In so concluding, the Second Court of Appeals overturned a 120-year-old Texas Supreme Court case, Heiligmann v. Rose (circa 1891), which held that plaintiffs could only recover the market value of their pets in negligence cases. The Court of Appeals did, however, reconcile their decision by reaffirming several past opinions, including City of Tyler v. Likes and Porras v. Craig, which explicitly held that where personal property has little or no market value, and its main value is in sentiment, damages may be awarded based on intrinsic or sentimental value.
Justice Lee Gabriel wrote the majority opinion for the court and was joined by Justices Sue Walker and Bill Meier. “Because of the special position pets hold in their family, we see no reason why existing law should not be interpreted to allow recovery in the loss of a pet at least to the same extent as other personal property,” wrote Justice Gabriel. “Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners. Today, we interpret timeworn supreme court law in light of subsequent supreme court law to acknowledge that the special value of ‘man’s best friend’ should be protected.” The Court of Appeals reasoned that “[b]ecause an owner may be awarded damages based on the sentimental value of lost personal property, and because dogs are personal property, the trial court erred in dismissing the Medlens’ action against Strickland.”
The Medlens’ attorney, Randy Turner, made a convincing argument before the Court of Appeals in his effort to change the archaic law. “[M]ore than 50 percent of Americans would risk their lives to save their dog. After Hurricane Katrina, people wouldn’t leave because they wouldn’t leave their dogs or cats. I defy you to find a piece of personal property that people value more than their pets. It can’t be done,” stated Turner.
Whether the Texas Supreme Court will be equally convinced is yet to be seen. The result of the appeal before Texas’s high court is not expected until the end of this year. However, the result could be a significant change in civil jurisprudence. According to Paul Boudloche, the attorney representing Carla Strickland, this case could “have a significant impact on the private sector, particularly veterinarians, kennel owners, even individuals who take care of their neighbors’ pets.” Boudloche continued, “[V]eterinarians … [will] have to practice much more defensive medicine. The value of a dog has changed in the eye of the law. So, if mistakes happen, the exposure for everybody is much greater.”
Surely another variety of incident which could be affected would be the shooting of pets by police officers while on duty. In recent years, office-involved dog shootings have been in the news as the pet owners seek public exposure of the incident as their only remedy. Assuming no immunity would preclude such an action, police departments could see themselves on the hook for added sentimental damages. Additionally, various liability insurance carriers may need to address their current policy coverage in respond to this case.
The Pet Owner Perspective
Until now, if an animal is negligently injured or killed, the owner is limited to their financial losses as their only remedy, including the costs of the incident and the pet’s market value. This policy has remained steady since the Heiligmann decision in 1891 and has produced a stable climate for animal care that has made pet ownership affordable for most people. This decision could allow pet owners to collects tens of thousands of dollars every time a pet is injured or passes away from something as innocent as an accident or mistake. The costs of these sorts of damages could potentially drive up related pet costs, including veterinary care, boarding, grooming, etc.
The Veterinarian Perspective
The cost of doing business is likely to rise as veterinarians attempt to limit their exposure to liability. When non-economic damages are at issue, the costs of litigation and insurance will almost certainly increase as a result. Similar to their human medicine counterparts, veterinarians may find themselves practicing defensive medicine, meaning more costly diagnostic and therapeutic measures, in order to safeguard against potential claims of malpractice.
The most concerning part is that there is no precedent on how to apply sentimental value damage awards. Is it to be subjective or objective? Based on the type or breed of the dog or how long they have lived with the plaintiffs? While we would like to think that the award would be minimal compared to medical malpractice cases involving humans, there is no current limit to such an award.
Obviously, two very important interests are at odds in this case—that of the pet owner seeking vindication for a lost loved-one, and the economic interests of everyone else. So while it may seem like a trivial case with little effect on the general public, the Texas Supreme Court’s decision later this year could change the way a great deal of people live their lives.