Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Aligned with this notion, Americans treat their dogs as more than mere personal property—dogs are like family members. Studies show that
- 70% of pet owners thought of their pets as family members;
- 45% of dog owners take their pets on vacation;
- over 50% of pet owners say they would rather be stranded on a deserted island with a dog or cat than with a human; and
- 50% of pet owners would be “very likely” to put their lives in danger to save their pets, and 33% are “somewhat likely” to risk their lives.
In 2014, Americans spent over $58 billion on their pets, with $310 million on just pet costumes. In 2015, Americans spent more than $60 billion on their pets.
Naturally, Texans also share the same sentiment—they simply love their dogs. In 2013, a mixed-breed dog named Avery escaped Kathryn and Jeremey Medlen’s backyard and was later picked up by animal control. When Jeremy found that Avery was held at a shelter, he immediately went to pick up his dog. Unfortunately, Jeremy did not carry enough money to pay the required fees, and the shelter hung a “hold for owner” tag on Avery’s cage to alert employees that he would not be euthanized. Despite the tag, shelter worker, Carla Strickland, mistakenly placed Avery on the euthanasia list. When Jeremy and his two young children returned to the shelter with the money to retrieve Avery, they discovered that their family dog was put to sleep. The Medlens brought suit for sentimental or intrinsic value damages because Avery had little or no market value but was irreplaceable.
To the Medlens’ disbelief, in Texas, an owner cannot receive emotional-based damages for the wrongful death of a pet. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that although pets are property in the eyes of the law, loss of companionship is a component of loss of consortium—a form of personal-injury damage available for only a few close family relationships, mainly husband-wife and parent-child, not property damage. The court decided that damages in wrongful death cases of dogs should be limited to market value, if the dog has any, or some special or pecuniary value to the owner that may be ascertained by reference to the usefulness and services of the dog. This means that one can only recover up to the amount he or she paid for the dog, or the value of the dog as a service or show dog. However, this decision flies in the face of all logic and common sense when the court has allowed emotional-based damages for family heirlooms since 1963.
The Texas Supreme Court reasoned that emotional-based damages would adversely impact pet welfare by exposing veterinarians to increased liability. The result would be higher prices for veterinary care, thus fewer owners bringing in their pets for needed treatment. Families, particularly lower-income families, will avoid preventive care for their pets, not seek needed care for ill or injured pets, and be more apt to euthanize a pet. In contrast, reports show that 47% of surveyed pet owners would spend any amount necessary on veterinary care to save a pet’s life. Some pet owners would even be willing to accrue large credit card debts and even go bankrupt to provide their pets with emergency veterinary care. As a result, the court’s reliance on this irrational fear will only perpetuate the low standard of care in the veterinarian community. With no suits against veterinarians, there can be no damage awards to enforce their standard of care. With no enforcement of the standard, there is no legal incentive for veterinarians to take the appropriate amount of care.
Therefore, awarding sentimental or intrinsic value damages in pet-death cases will, in turn, be more beneficial to pet welfare in the long run. The fact that heirlooms, such as a ring, a wedding veil, or even a gun, deserve emotional-based damages, but a dog, man’s best friend, does not is illogical and preposterous. America is a great nation, but its greatness is diminished by rulings such as this from the Texas Supreme Court.
Thanh Le is an associate attorney at Nguyen & Chen, LLP, whose practice focuses on litigation and corporate law. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology from the University of Houston and her Juris Doctor from South Texas College of Law, both with Magna Cum Laude honors. She is also fluent in Vietnamese and has spent her time volunteering at Houston Volunteer Lawyers, LegalLine, and Veterans Legal Clinic.