Texas Supreme Court rules against pet owners seeking non-economic damages

In the conclusion to a long-running court battle between a pet-owning couple and a Texas animal shelter, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that pet owners cannot sue for non-economic damages.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don R. Willett acknowledged in his written opinion regarding Medlen v. Strickland that dogs are an important part of the family, but said in the end he has to rule that dogs are property.

“No one disputes that a family dog - ‘in life the firmest friend’ - is a treasured companion. But it is also personal property, and the law draws sensible, policy-based distinctions between types of property,” he wrote.

According to Willett, the court weighed strong concerns about the potentially harmful effects of allowing non-economic damages from groups such as the Texas Municipal League, various insurance groups, and the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, which said in a post-ruling press release that it applauded the decision because the awarding of large damages would “fundamentally change the way veterinarians practice medicine by forcing them to practice defensively, which translated to increased costs for veterinary care.”

Willett wrote that allowing pet owners to sue for non-economic damages would have raised a plethora of additional issues, many of which he felt were more suited for consideration by the state's Legislature.

"Questions abound: who can sue, who can be sued, for what missteps, for what types of damages, for how much money? And what of the societal ripple effects on veterinarians, animal-medicine manufacturers, homeowners and drivers seeking insurance, pet owners, pet caretakers, and ultimately pets themselves?" Willett asked in his written opinion.  

"Animal-death suits portend fundamental changes to our civil-justice system, not incremental adjustments on a case-by-case basis. They require detailed findings and eligibility criteria, which in turn require the careful balancing of a range of views from a range of perspectives, something best left to our 181-member Legislature.”

Although the state's legal stance on the economic value of pets will maintain its status quo for now, Willett said the court is not blind to the sentiments of pet owners.

“Our precedent on the legal valuation of companion animals has endured for 122 years, and while we decline today to expand the damages available to bereaved pet owners, we understand the strength of the human-animal bond,” he wrote.

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