Overturning an Appeals Court ruling, the Texas Supreme Court on April 5 reaffirmed a 122-year-old declaration that pets are personal property and that owners of a deceased animal may not sue for emotional or sentimental damages.
The Texas Veterinary Medical Association applauded the decision, saying that had the appellate ruling stood, the cost of ownership and care of a pet would become prohibitive for many people.
The case stemmed not from veterinary malpractice but from a Fort Worth animal shelter's mistaken euthanizing of a mixed-breed dog. The animal, Avery, had been picked up as a stray and was tagged to be held until his owners, Kathyrn and Jeremy Medlen, could pay the required release fees. Shelter worker Carla Strickland erroneously put Avery on a euthanasia list, and he was killed before the Medlens returned.
A trial judge dismissed the Medlens' lawsuit because of the century-old court ruling, but the case was revived on appeal in 2011, creating what the state Supreme Court called “a novel–and expansive–tort claim: loss of companionship for the wrongful death of a pet.”
Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Don R. Willett did not discount a pet owner's emotional attachment to an animal, saying Texans love and treasure their dogs, but he stated that the court could not “enshrine an expensive new rule that allows recovery for what a canine companion means to its owner.”
Many pet friendly organizations, including the American Kennel Club, the Cat Fanciers' Association and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, had urged the Supreme Court to reject the emotional damages argument. A ruling in favor of the Medlens, the groups stated, would turn pet litigation into a “cottage industry” and expose veterinarians, shelter and kennel workers, animal rescue workers and pet sitters to increased liability.
The advocacy groups saw potential litigation stemming from everything from car accidents and veterinary visits to shelter incidents and pet-on-pet aggression.
Willett agreed, writing, “As risks and costs rise, there would be fewer free clinics for spaying and neutering, fewer shelters taking in animals, fewer services like walking and boarding, and fewer people adopting pets, leaving more animals abandoned and ultimately put down.”
The Medlens' attorney, Randy Turner, told The Washington Post that the couple “never cared about the money.”
“They just wanted to change the law,” Turner said. “This is a huge defeat for our four-legged friends.”
The court pointed out that changing the law should be the responsibility of Texas legislators, not judges.
The New York-based American Kennel Club supports current Texas laws, saying they have “created a stable legal system that promotes responsible animal ownership, deters animal abuse and promotes innovative, affordable and quality animal care.”
“In Texas, as in many other states, pet owners can recover the economic value of a pet, any veterinarian bills resulting from an alleged injury, and in some instances, other reasonable and necessary costs arising out of the injury,” the AKC added in a statement released after the ruling.
Echoing the AKC, the Texas Veterinary Medical Association noted that the current system has “produced a stable climate for animal care that has made pet ownership economically viable for most people.”
Lawsuits seeking noneconomic damages would force veterinarians to practice medicine defensively, increasing the cost of care, the organization stated.