Putting A Price on The Love of Your Pet
Back in 2009, a dog named Avery escaped from his yard. His family found him at a local animal shelter but did not have enough money to claim him. They made arrangements with the shelter to hold him and returned later with the money. Despite a “hold for owner” tag on Avery’s cage, the shelter had euthanized him early. This was heartbreaking news for owners Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen.
The Medlen’s lawyered up and sued for the loss of their pet. Surprisingly The Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, Texas overturned a lower court’s ruling that the family was entitled to “property” damages equaling the market value of their dog. The new ruling cited a 120-year-old Texas Supreme Court decision as precedent and allowed the dog’s sentimental value to be awarded. This means pets are now considered similar to family heirlooms that might be of negligible monetary value but have great emotional worth.
“It is the first time in Texas history that an appeals court has allowed a pet owner to recover sentimental-value damages for the death of a dog,” said Randy Turner, the Fort Worth attorney who represents the Medlens. “This is a huge deal for pet owners. Up until the Medlen case, if a person came to see me wanting to sue someone for killing their dog, I had to tell them it was not worth it.”
Some top pet industry organizations are actually opposed to the court decision. The idea being the costs of liability would increase the cost of pet services. The American Veterinary Medical Association (their original article), American Kennel Club, the Cat Fanciers’ Association, Animal Health Institute, American Pet Products Association, and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council are just some of those with fears of frivolous lawsuits claiming “pain and suffering” would make veterinary care unaffordable for many pet owners.
“If this becomes the law of the land, it will lead to higher costs to own a pet, disproportionally hurting middle-class and low-income pet owners. Who will pay for those higher damage awards? The rest of us pet owners, of course,” said Adrian Hochstadt, AVMA Assistant Director of State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs. “The obvious consequences will include fewer people being able to own pets and, unfortunately, more animal abandonment.”
Since 1997, courts in Kentucky and California have awarded damages to pet owners for loss of companionship, emotional distress and other factors. In 1997, a Kentucky jury awarded $15,000 to the owner of a German shepherd, Sheba, who bled to death after surgery. In 2000, a judge in Costa Mesa, California, awarded almost $28,000 in damages to a woman whose Rottweiler, Lonnie, had to have its teeth capped after a bungled dental surgery.
Why don’t warring parties find a way to settle? In the case of Lucky, a pet died after dental surgery because his vet sent him to an animal emergency center for recovery because it was closing time, there was on way to compromise. “These doctors worked hard to save this animal,” the lawyer representing the vet says. “They feel victimized by this. They feel falsely accused.” Lucky’s owner says, “If he had just told us what happened and said, ‘I’m sorry, forgive me, it was an accident,’ we wouldn’t be doing this.” How many cases can be resolved with an apology?
Legal experts say the Medlen battle over Avery will likely end up in Texas Supreme Court. How do you think this case will unfold? Will this case change animal law across the US? Will this be the start of a new attitude towards pets that reflects the growing trend of pets as members of the family? Will it lead to stiffer punishment for those found guilty of animal abuse and neglect? Will this lead to frivolous lawsuits and an attack on the veterinary and pet service industry? We’ll have to wait and see.
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