In torts class, we often discuss Hegelian and other theories on understanding the value of objects. It is often the case that our clients come to us with the loss of property that has a higher value to them than is recognized by the law. This creates a difficult disconnect in seeking to make injured parties whole. The greatest example of this disconnect is the loss of pets. Pets are treated as a form of chattel and any significant damages are usually found not in the value of the pet but in the emotional damages for the human. This issue resulted in a significant decision in Texas Supreme Court last week when it found that damages for the loss of Avery could not include his sentimental value to the owner. In other words, Avery was a toaster. More friendly, more loyal, but a toaster when it comes to torts.
At issue in the case was the 122-year-old precedent classifying pets as property for tort-law purposes. The plaintiffs were asking the court to embrace a new common-law loss-of-companionship claim allowing noneconomic damages for emotional attachment.
The tragedy in the case resulted from a lack of ready cash by a family and clear negligence by an animal shelter. In June 2009, Avery, the pet of Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen, escaped the family’s backyard and was picked up by Fort Worth animal control. The father went to the shelter and claimed Avery. However, he lacked the money to pay for the fees imposed by the shelter. Accordingly, the shelter hung a “hold for owner” tag on Avery’s cage to indicated that he was going to be picked up and should not be euthanized. However, employee Carla Strickland negligently euthanized Avery.
The Texas court of appeals handed down a victory for pet owners in holding that pets should be given the same protection as afforded to some forms of personal property in seeking sentimental damages. In reinstating the lawsuit the court of appeals ruled that, given “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.” It held that “Because an owner may be awarded damages based on the sentimental value of lost personal property, and because dogs are personal property, the trial court erred in dismissing the Medlens’ action against Strickland.”
This put the shelter and its worker in the position of fighting a ruling that allowed pets to be recognized for closer to their true value as living creatures.
The Court begins its opinion with “Texans love their dogs. Throughout the Lone Star State, canine companions are treated—and treasured—not as mere personal property but as beloved friends and confidants, even family members.” It is the type of windup that litigators hate because you can almost hear the whistle of the train coming down the track.
The court ruled:
Loss of companionship, the gravamen of the Medlens’ claim, is fundamentally a form of personal-injury damage, not property damage. It is a component of loss of consortium, including the loss of “love, affection, protection, emotional support, services, companionship, care, and society.” Loss-of-consortium damages are available only for a few especially close family relationships, and to allow them in lost pet cases would be inconsistent with these limitations. . .
The Medlens find it odd that Texas law would permit sentimental damages for loss of an heirloom but not an Airedale. Strickland would find it odd if Texas law permitted damages for loss of a Saint Bernard but not for a brother Bernard. . . .
The “true rule” in Texas remains this: Where a dog’s market value is unascertainable, the correct damages measure is the dog’s “special or pecuniary value” (that is, its actual value)—the economic value derived from its “usefulness and services,” not value drawn from companionship or other non-commercial considerations.
Accordingly, the court rejects the “subjective” feelings of owners as a basis for liability and continues the precedent from 1891 which classified dogs as personal property. Justice Willett writes “It is an inconvenient, yet inescapable, truth: Tort law cannot remedy every wrong.”
The problem with the ruling is that it achieves uniformity by extinguishing what is undeniably the true value of a loss in these cases. There are a variety of damages that turn on highly individualized responses to loss, including emotional distress claims. By not valuing pets at their true value, the torts system loses critical aspects of deterrence and efficiency. By forcing negligent parties to bear the true costs of their actions, the torts systems encourages the assumption of preventive measures. Companies can either internalize such costs or take measure of cost avoidance in preventive measures. The long-standing rule also fails on the level of pure normative theory in making whole a victim. Finally, the ruling treats pets as legal interchangeable. The value of a dead Beagle is simply another Beagle –ignoring the specific connection and attachment to the dog. Such a ruling would be viewed as absurd with the loss of human family members, but pets continue to be treated as an object with a fixed market value.
What do you think?
The case is Strickland v. Medlen (NO. 12-0047).
Here is the opinion: 120047