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Tears for a hound? Texas Supreme Court is unmoved, doggone it

April 06, 2013|By Michael Muskal
  • The Medlen family's dog, Avery. The Texas Supreme Court maintained Friday that the Medlens could not seek damages for loss of companionship after Avery was mistakenly euthanized by an animal shelter.
The Medlen family's dog, Avery. The Texas Supreme Court maintained…

Pets are important parts of many families. But as far as the law is concerned, a pet is still just a thing, the Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

In a lengthy opinion, which notes that "even the gruffest among us tears up (every time) at the end of 'Old Yeller'," the state court held that the death of a pet -- no matter how sad, how wrong or how important the animal may be -- cannot lead to a case of seeking damages for an emotional loss.

"Pets are property in the eyes of the law, and we decline to permit non-economic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings,” the court held. "True, a beloved companion dog is not a fungible, inanimate object like, say, a toaster. The term ‘property’ is not a pejorative but a legal descriptor, and its use should not be misconstrued as discounting the emotional attachment that pet owners undeniably feel.”

The death of a pet, the court goes on, “is limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship,” Justice Don Willet wrote.

In June 2009, a mixed-breed dog named Avery, ran away from the home it shared with Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen and their two children in Fort Worth. Though beloved, Avery had essentially zero market value.

Avery wound up at an animal shelter where he was mistakenly euthanized, even though a worker at the pound placed a tag on Avery instructing that he not be killed.

The family sued, but the action was dismissed by the trial court. An appeals court, however, allowed the suit and its claim for damages for loss of companionship. That pushed the issue onto the lap of the state Supreme Court.

“Measuring the worth of a beloved pet is unquestionably an emotional determination -- what the animal means to you and your family -- but measuring a pet's value is a legal determination,” Willet wrote. “We are focused on the latter, and as a matter of law an owner's affection for a dog (or ferret, or parakeet, or tarantula) is not compensable.”

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