Texas Wrestles with How to Compensate Pet Owners for Wrongful Death

  • In a study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 2011, researchers found that people who owned pets were less lonely, had greater self-esteem, and had less fear and anxiety than those who did not.
  • Studies have also shown that pets can ease depression and agitation, and can actually improve nutritional well-being for individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
  • A Harris Poll in 2011 found that more than nine out of ten dog and cat owners considered their four-legged companions to be members of the family.

    Market Value vs. Sentimental Value

    Texas Wrestles with How to Compensate Pet Owners for Wrongful Death

Unfortunately, the laws governing civil suits for the wrongful death of a pet do not take these sentiments into consideration. As a general rule, pets and other domestic animals are simply considered personal property. When a pet or other domestic animal is killed because of the negligence or carelessness of another person, the law generally allows you to recover no more than the fair market value of the animal. In a recent case in the 2nd Court of Appeals, in Fort Worth, Texas, however, the court ruled that a pet can have sentimental value, too.

The Texas Case

The plaintiffs in the Texas case, Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen, owned an 8-year-old Mutt named Avery. Avery escaped from their back yard on a summer night in 2009 and ended up in the Fort Worth animal shelter. When Mr. Medlen went to the shelter to get Avery, he learned that he did not have enough cash ($80) to pay the fees required by the shelter. He was told, however, that he could return later for Avery, and that shelter workers would place a “hold for owner” tag on Avery to make certain he wasn’t put down. Medlen returned the next day, but was told he could not take Avery until a microchip was implanted in his ear, which would take a couple days, as the shelter’s veterinarian was unavailable. When Medlen returned on the day workers told him he could pick up his dog (with his children in tow), he learned that the dog had been euthanized.

Market Value vs. Sentimental Value

The longstanding view of pets and other animals in Texas is that they are personal property, and that their loss is no different from the loss of inanimate objects, such as vehicles, homes or furniture. The measure of damages for such losses has always been the cost to replace the damaged or destroyed item. Since 1963, however, Texas has recognized the concept of sentimental value, customarily applied where something may not have any market value, but carried special value because of the place it held in the owner’s heart or life. Until this case, however, the legal principle of sentimental value had never been applied to a pet, only to such items as heirloom jewelry, pictures or other inanimate objects.

Attorney Randy Turner, of Bailey & Galyen, who represents the Medlens, lauded the ruling by the court of appeals. A pet owner himself who has handled the Medlen’s case at no charge, Turner points out that prior law allowed you to sue to recover the sentimental value of a lost photograph of your dog, but not for the sentimental value of the dog. Opponents contend that extending the rule to pets would give them a status greater than your friends, as the law does not allow you to seek damages for the wrongful death of someone outside your family.

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