On June 2, 2009, the Medlens’ family dog, Avery, escaped from his backyard in Tarrant County, Texas. Animal Control responded and impounded Avery as a stray. Mr. Medlen went to the pound to claim Avery, but did not have enough money that day to pay the impound fees. The pound told Mr. Medlen that he could return on June 10 to get Avery, and a “hold for owner” tag was placed on Avery’s kennel.
On June 6, a pound employee made a list of dogs to be euthanized the following day, and mistakenly included Avery’s name on that list. Avery was euthanized the next day. The Medlens discovered the mistake and tragic result when they went to reclaim Avery as planned.
The Medlens sued the employee for negligence, claiming damages to compensate them for the unique sentimental or intrinsic value that Avery had. The employee argued that the Medlens weren’t entitled to those kinds of damages, and the trial court agreed with the employee.
On appeal, the pound employee relied on an 1891 Texas case, Heiligman v. Rose, for the proposition that Texas law treats dogs differently than other “personal property,” and limits damages to market value, or some special pecuniary value based on the dog’s usefulness or services. Heiligman involved three dogs who were poisoned. The dogs were bred and “well trained,” and one of the dogs would even bark in three different ways to signal whether a man, woman or child were approaching. The plaintiff in that case testified that the dogs’ “market value” was $5, but that she wouldn’t part with them for less than $50.
Arguing to reverse the trial court, the Medlens cited cases holding that plaintiffs are entitled to the sentimental or intrinsic value of property when the property has little to no “fair market value.” The appellate courts have not had the opportunity to decide cases with companion animals since Heiligman, but have looked at cases involving family correspondence, photographs and other keepsakes, shade and ornamental trees, and wedding veils, shoes, lace collars and watches.
On Friday, the Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas issued its opinion agreeing with the Medlens, concluding that they entitled to damages reflecting Avery’s sentimental or intrinsic value. The highlight of the Court’s opinion is this wonderful acknowledgment of the special human-dog bond:
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. Cf. Bueckner, 886 S.W.2d at 377–78 (Andell, J., concurring) (“Society has long since moved beyond the untenable Cartesian view that animals are unfeeling automatons and, hence, mere property. The law should reflect society‘s recognition that animals are sentient and emotive beings that are capable of providing companionship to the humans with whom they live.”). Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners. Today, we interpret timeworn supreme court law in light of subsequent supreme court law to acknowledge that the special value of “man‘s best friend” should be protected.
Although this does allow for damages based on intrinsic or sentimental value, the Texas courts may still be unwilling to allow for damages for mental anguish or pain and suffering for the loss of a companion animal. Virginia has made it clear that a plaintiff in a negligence action cannot claim damages for pain and suffering – although there is a window of hope that the Virginia courts would allow those damages in intentional tort cases. But Virginia has yet to come out clearly on the issue of damages based on a companion animals’ intrinsic or sentimental value.
This case is a wonderful example of how we can work within the confines of the law – which still considers our companions to be personal property – to achieve results that nonetheless recognize the special place that our companion animals have in our lives.
Many thanks to Debra Griggs of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies for alerting me to this case!