Animal Law

How much is that doggie in the window? Not much, Texas justices rule


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Old Zeke may be man’s best friend, companion and beloved by his owner, but he has no sentimental value under the law, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In a case closely watched by animal rights experts, pet-welfare organizations and pet-oriented business, the state justices reversed a lower court decision that allowed a bereaved dog owner to sue an animal shelter for the wrongful death of their pet.

The 25-page opinion (PDF) written by Justice Don Willett starts by giving a nod to old Zeke.

“Texans love their dogs. Throughout the Lone Star State, canine companions are treated—and treasured—not merely as personal property but as beloved friends and confidants, even family members,” the unanimous decision starts, as if preparing the reader for the eventual letdown. “We acknowledge the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed. Relational attachment is unquestionable. But it is also uncompensable. Pets are property in the eyes of law, and we decline to permit noneconomic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings.”

The justices point to a state supreme court decision in 1891 which classified dogs as personal property. As a result, owners were barred from seeking noneconomic damages.

“True, a beloved conpanion dog is not a fungible, inanimate object like, say, a toaster,” the courts admits. “The term ‘property’ is not a pejorative but a legal descriptor. Under established legal doctrine, recovery in pet-death cases is, barring legislative reclassification, limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship.”

The case in question started in 2009 in Fort Worth when animal control picked up a mixed-breed dog that had escaped the backyard of Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen.

Medlen went to claim the dog the next day, but didn’t have the money to pay the fee. He informed the shelter that he would be back in two days and asked the shelter to not euthanize the pet. The shelter agreed.

Two days later, the family returned to the shelter with the money but discovered their dog had been put to sleep. The Medlens sued the shelter worker for causing the dog’s death and sought “sentimental value.”

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, citing the 122-year-old court decision. But last year, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals reinstated the claim.

“It is an inconvenient, yet inescapable, truth: Tort law cannot remedy every wrong,” Justice Willett concluded. “No one disputes that a family dog … is a treasured companion. But it is also personal property, and the law draws sensible, policy-based distinctions between types of property.”

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