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Pets’ Sentimental Value Raises Larger Question

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Pets’ Sentimental Value Raises Larger QuestionPets’ Sentimental Value Raises Larger Question, texas dog euthanized, pets nonecomic damages, texas dog lawsuitA Texas appeals court ruled in November that the owners of a dog accidentally euthanized at an animal shelter could be awarded damages based on the animal’s sentimental value. A Texas appeals court ruled in November that the owners of a dog accidentally euthanized at an animal shelter could be awarded damages based on the animal’s sentimental value. The finding appeared to reverse 120 years of Texas law that held that sentimental value was not recoverable for harm to a dog. newslinePets’ Sentimental Value Raises Larger QuestionBy Steve Barghusen, DVM, JD
For Veterinary Practice NewsPosted: Jan. 9, 2012, 4:45 p.m. EST

Texas court ruling on sentimental value of pets

A Texas appeals court ruled in November that the owners of a dog accidentally euthanized at an animal shelter could be awarded damages based on the animal’s sentimental value. The finding appeared to reverse 120 years of Texas law that held that sentimental value was not recoverable for harm to a dog.

In the recent case, Avery, an 8-year-old mixed-breed dog, escaped from his owners’ yard and was picked up by animal control in Fort Worth, Texas. The owners could not afford to pay the retrieval fines that day but were told they could come back eight days later, pay and take him home. When they returned, they discovered that the dog had been euthanized three days earlier.

The owners sued the shelter employee who authorized the euthanasia and sought to recover Avery’s sentimental value. The trial judge, relying on Texas case law, dismissed the lawsuit, but the 2nd District Court of Appeals disagreed and sent the case back to the lower court for trial.

Questions Arise
While such a case is heartbreaking, the question of whether noneconomic damages should be awarded for harm to a pet is sticky, legally and practically.

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For readers smart enough to go to veterinary school rather than law school—and smart enough to not do both!—the concept of non-economic damages needs explanation.

When a court awards monetary damages for harm suffered by a plaintiff, they can be characterized in various ways. The two most common types of damage awards are for economic and noneconomic damages.
 
Economic damages seek to reimburse people for direct monetary losses they experience due to the harm they suffered. Noneconomic damages seek to convert nonmonetary harm into monetary form so that harm can be redressed with money.

With harm to humans, both economic and noneconomic damages can be considerable amounts. If a person was the victim of medical malpractice, the economic damages may include lost wages and medical expenses. The noneconomic damages could include pain and suffering. Depending on the individual’s income, length of illness and the severity of injury, either of these types of damages could potentially be in the millions of dollars.

In the case of harm to an animal, things are a bit different.

Animals Defined
Unlike people, animals are legally considered property. For harm to property, economic damages are usually the fair market replacement value of that property. Noneconomic damages could cover the sentimental value of the property as well as the pain and suffering and mental anguish owner.

However, the law typically does not allow recovery of noneconomic damages for harm to property, including animals.

Obviously, economic damages for harm to a pet dog would rarely amount to much. For example, the fair market value of a terrier mix depreciated over 11 years is negligible.

My dog, Annie, who to me is worth more than any amount of money, is just such a terrier. On the other hand, if I were able to recover damages for my sentimental attachment to Annie, I would be rich, indeed. Under current law, however, if someone were to harm Annie I almost certainly would receive nothing more from a court than her replacement value.

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Even in human medical malpractice cases where economic damages can be significant, plaintiffs’ attorneys love noneconomic damage awards. The size of these awards is often determined by how sympathetic a jury feels toward a plaintiff. 

The companion animal veterinarian is largely insulated from medical malpractice lawsuits because the size of economic-damage awards after a pet dog is harmed have been too small to cover the cost of filing a lawsuit.

Allowing noneconomic damages for harm to pets could change all this.
 
The dramatic increase in monetary awards that recovery of noneconomic damages could bring could increase the number of malpractice lawsuits brought against veterinarians.

Some believe that more lawsuits would benefit the practice of veterinary medicine. The theory goes that the fear of losing a lawsuit would force veterinarians to practice a higher standard of care. Most of the proponents of this viewpoint are lawyers.

Virtually no one believes that a pet’s value is simply the cost to replace it with a similar animal. Many of our pets and the relationships we have with them are truly priceless.

The question is: Is society better off when we allow such damages, or are we better off barring these types of damages?

Should society allow noneconomic damage awards for harm to pets? The answer on a societal level is unclear, but there seems little question that the effect on our profession is likely to be profound. Once set in motion, any change will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

Dr. Barghusen is a diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners.

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