Growing up, we always had family pets. My favorite pet was Willie, a short-haired brownish dachshund with a big personality. She had the run of the neighborhood, mainly because she dug out under our white-picket backyard fence with alarming regularity. Every Tuesday and Thursday she hitched a ride with the laundry delivery man, climbing up on the cab floorboard for an exhilarating 3-house journey, and then climbing down to run home. She thought she was one of the kids on the block, and enthusiastically participated in every baseball game, foot race and scavenger hunt.
Willie had one bad habit – she liked to chase cars. There came the time, on a sunny play-filled afternoon, when she caught one.
And just like that, grief caught us.
That’s the downside of having a beloved pet. Their death can affect an owner just as much as that of a family member. Some would say more, since a pet’s love is deep and unconditional, and not many people could say the same about their relatives’ affection.
Grief over a pet’s death is not widely recognized as legitimate. Employers won’t give bereavement days, pet obituaries are rarely published, and memorial services – if done at all – are constrained to the backyard.
Yet the grief is valid because we place a sentimental value on the life of our pet. A pet’s worth is an emotional determination. At a pet’s death, we feel loss and loneliness. It is a sorrow that has no price.
A Pet’s Worth According to the Texas Supreme Court
That is just as well, because in Texas an owner’s affection for a pet is not compensable. An owner cannot recover emotional damages for the loss of a dog.
A pet is considered property with a worth determined by fair market value. For example, a purebred dog is worth more than a mutt, because a willing buyer will pay more for a purebred. However, fair market value is not the last word, because sometimes there is not a thriving market for a certain kind of animal. When a dog’s market value cannot be determined, then worth is measured by the economic value derived from its usefulness and services. That is vastly different from valuing a pet’s companionship and love.
The Strickland v. Medlen Case
We know this because the Texas Supreme Court, in 2013, explained it thoroughly in Strickland v. Medlen, a case involving a beloved family dog allegedly euthanized, mistakenly, by a pet shelter worker. The appellate court had held that the family could recover intangible loss-of-companionship damages through what is known as “sentimental value” property damages. The Supreme Court disagreed.
There is a history surrounding sentimental value damages. They are special valuation rules regarding family heirlooms. They are appropriate when family keepsakes – such as a wedding veil, pistol, jewelry, hand-made bedspread, or other item going back several generations – that have their primary value in sentiment are destroyed. Sentimental value damages may factor in the feelings of the owner in their calculation.
The Medlens wanted to apply the emotion-based sentimental value damage calculation to negligently destroyed pets. Absolutely not, said the Supreme Court, explaining that an owner’s fondness for a family heirloom is based on the nostalgia it evokes, while an owner’s attachment to a family pet is emotional and based on the “rich companionship” it provides. There was no need to expand damages and overturn 122 years of Texas law.
My family did not calculate our pet’s worth using archaic rules and court decisions. Willie’s value was measured by love, companionship, and the depth of our grief when she died.
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