Court rules Texas dog owners can sue for sentimental damages

Pet owners in Texas can now claim sentimental damages for the loss of their dog, according to a recent court decision.

A Texas family appealed the dismissal of their suit against an animal control worker who euthanized their dog even after the dog had been tagged with a "hold for owner" tag. The appeals court overturned the dismissal, reactivating the Medlens’ case and allowing them to sue for sentimental damages.

On June 2, 2009, Kathryn and Jeremy Medlens’ dog, Avery, escaped from their backyard and was picked up by animal control. According to court records, Jeremy went to the animal shelter to bring Avery home, but did not have enough money with him at the time to pay the fees. Animal shelter workers told Jeremy to return for the dog June 10 with the appropriate fees, and placed a "hold for owner" tag on the dog’s cage.

On June 6, a shelter employee named Carla Strickland made a list of animals to be euthanized the following day, and included Avery on the list despite the "hold for owner" tag. The dog was euthanized the following day, before the Medlens could return to pick up the dog.

The Medlens sued Strickland for the sentimental or intrinsic value of the dog, since the dog had little market value and was irreplaceable. Strickland objected to the Medlens’ claim on the grounds that sentimental damages cannot be awarded for the death of a dog in the state of Texas. The trial judge granted Strickland’s exception and ordered the Medlens to amend their pleadings to "state a claim for damages recognized at law". After filing an amended petition, the trial judge dismissed the lawsuit. The Medlens appealed.

According to the court opinion,

dog owners should be entitled to sentimental damages just as they would be with any other personal property.

"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners," the opinion reads. "Today, we interpret timeworn Supreme Court law in light of subsequent Supreme Court law to acknowledge that the special value of ‘mans best friend’ should be protected."

The court determined that the trial court wrongfully ruled in dismissing the Medlens’ claim against Strickland.

"Because 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 court said.

Stricklands attorney, Paul Boudloche, told the Texas Lawyer that the court’s ruling will impact everyone who cares for a pet, forcing them to practice defensive medicine.

"I think its going to have a significant impact on the private sector, particularly veterinarians, kennel owners, even individuals who take care of their neighbors pets. I mean, for example, on veterinarians, things which would be routine care for a pet, now they have to practice much more defensive medicine," Boudloche said. "[T]he value of a dog has changed in the eye of the law. So, if mistakes happen, the exposure for everybody is much greater."

The court’s decision overturns the Texas law that has stood for 120 years.

"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 any other personal property," the court said.