In a long-awaited decision with significant implications for the civil justice system, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that a pet owner may not recover non-economic damages for loss of companionship resulting from the death of a pet. In Strickland v. Medlen (No. 12-0047) a family’s pet dog escaped from the home and ended up in a local animal shelter. Despite the fact that the dog was identified as belonging to the Medlens and was held for pick-up, the dog was mistakenly euthanized. The family sued the shelter worker for wrongful death of a pet, seeking recovery of “sentimental or intrinsic value” damages, though Texas law has historically compensated animal owners only for the economic value of the animal. The trial court ruled in favor of the defendant Strickland, but the Fort Worth Court of Appeals reversed, allowing the Medlens to recover for the “intrinsic” or sentimental value of the pet.
The court’s opinion, authored by Justice Don Willett, reviews Texas Supreme Court precedent stretching back to 1891, which limits damages for the loss of a domestic animal to the market value of the animal and any special value associated with the usefulness and services of the dog (e.g., a guide dog for the vision-impaired). Citing an amicus brief submitted by the American Kennel Club, Justice Willett and the Court agreed that while “no two pets are alike, the emotional attachments a person establishes with each pet cannot be shoe-horned into keepsake-like sentimentality for litigation purposes.” The opinion acknowledged that expanding Texas law to allow emotional damages in these cases would, as argued by TCJL’s and other groups’ amicus briefs in the case, have substantial public policy implications. The court was persuaded that expanding the law would have a serious chilling effect on volunteer and government-funded animal shelters, animal rescue organizations, veterinarians, and others engaged in animal care. Imposing a new liability on these providers would also increase the cost of animal health care, cost taxpayers money, and raise automobile insurance premiums to cover drivers who accidentally injure or kill pets straying into the road. The opinion also cited with approval one of the primary arguments of TCJL’s brief”: that a change in public policy of this magnitude should be made by the Texas Legislature, not the courts.