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Supreme Court Prohibits Damages for Value of Pet

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The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that an owner of a pet who was negligently killed may not recover damages for the loss of the pet, other than the pet's economic value. The decision came in the case of Strickland v. Medlen, ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tex. 2013).

In Strickland, a dog who had escaped his yard was picked up and taken to a municipal animal shelter. While looking for their pet, the owners found him at the shelter; however, they did not have sufficient cash on them at the time to pay the shelter's fee. Before they could return with the money necessary for the charges, a worker wrongly placed the dog on a list allowing him to be killed.

The Supreme Court ruled that "a bereaved dog owner [may not] recover emotion-based damages for the loss." The dog is "personal property, thus disallowing non-economic damages." "[M]ental-anguish damages are [not] recoverable for the negligent destruction of personal property.... [M]ental anguish is a form of personal-injury damage, unrecoverable in an ordinary property-damage case." Therefore, "recovery in pet-death cases is ... limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship." "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."

The law "label[s] [pets] as 'property' for purposes of tort-law recovery." The rule for damages of a dog has "two elements: (1) 'market value, if the dog has any,' or (2) 'some special or pecuniary value to the owner, that may be ascertained by reference to the usefulness and services of the dog.'" The "special or pecuniary value" refers not to the emotional bond, but to "the dog's usefulness and services."

The "actual value" of the pet "can include a range of other factors: purchase price, reasonable replacement costs (including investments such as immunizations, neutering, training), breeding potential (if any), special training, any particular economic utility, veterinary expenses related to the negligent injury, and so on."

"'Tort law . . . cannot remedy every wrong.'" So, the Supreme Court deferred, saying that the Legislature would have to provide any legal recourse. "[A]llowing loss-of-companionship suits raises wide-reaching public-policy implications that legislators are better suited to calibrate." "Amid competing policy interests, including the inherent subjectivity (and inflatability [sic]) of emotion-based damages, lawmakers are best positioned to decide if such a potentially costly expansion of tort law is in the State's best interest, and if so, to structure an appropriate remedy." "The judiciary, ... while well suited to adjudicate individual disputes, is an imperfect forum to examine the myriad policy trade-offs at stake here." This is "best left to our 181-member Legislature."

If you or someone you know have suffered lost or damaged property due to the intentional or negligent acts of another, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or 1-800-870-9584.

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