What is your pet worth?
One hundred and twenty years ago, the Texas Supreme Court answered that question in the Heiligman case, which involved the death of three beloved dogs. A pet is worth only its fair market value – what it would bring in an open market with a willing buyer and a willing seller. To put it succinctly, a mutt is worth less than a trained purebred. In later cases, the courts steadfastly refused to budge from that formula, disregarding the worth of unborn pups, owner sentimentality, and companionship.
Then came the case of Avery, a family pet that was mistakenly euthanized by an animal shelter. His owners, the Medlens, sued the shelter employee who had ignored the “hold” tag on his cage and put him on the euthanization list. The Medlens acknowledged that Avery had no fair market value, but argued that they should be able to recover money based on how much they loved their pet. They based their position on several more recent Texas cases that had awarded sentimental value for personal possessions (wedding veils, family albums, keepsakes) that had little or no market worth. The trial court dismissed their case. On appeal, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals agreed with the family and, for the first time in Texas history, instructed the trial court to proceed with the trial and base any money damages on the sentimental value of the dog. The shelter employee appealed.
That’s when the dog fight really began. The Texas Veterinary Medical Association, American Kennel Club, No Kill Advocacy Center, Texas Municipal League, Texas Civil Justice League, Texas Dog Commission and a group of Law Professors from seven Texas law schools weighed in with amicus (friend of court) briefs. Not surprisingly, the vets and the government entities were on the side of the shelter employee, painting a picture where future juries would award astronomical damages based on the volume of tears shed by pet owners on the witness stand. The dog lovers and the law professors painted a different picture of tragic deaths of beloved pets going unpunished merely because the animal has no value on the open market.
The case brought together some diverse groups. Dog clubs joined cat associations and pet food manufacturers to file one brief – The American Kennel Club was joined by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, the Animal Health Institute, the National Animal Alliance, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Pet Products Association and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. They pointed out that 35 states do not allow for sentimental recovery for loss of a pet, and that the Medlen decision could make a person liable for thousands of dollars of damages if his car accidentally hit the neighbor’s dog.
The Texas Dog Commission sympathized with the dog owners, and used a little visual persuasion by including pictures of dogs in its brief.”
The case was argued before the Texas Supreme Court on January 10, 2013. The briefs are available for viewing at the Texas Supreme Court’s website.
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The information contained in this article is general information only and does not constitute legal advice.