Texas Supreme Court Denies Emotional-Injury Damages for Pet Owners

Last year, we wrote about Medlen v. Strickland, 353 S.W.3d 576 (2011), a Fort Worth Court of Appeals case that permitted the plaintiffs to recover emotional damages for the wrongful killing of the family’s beloved dog.

The Texas Supreme Court reviewed the case in order to resolve a split among the courts of appeals. In Strickland v. Medlen, ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tex.2013) (No. 12-0047; 4-5-13), the Court reversed the court of appeals’ decision and reaffirmed the “true rule” in Texas:

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 opinion relies mainly on common-law principles and public-policy concerns. Fundamentally, dogs (and other pets) are property. Personal-injury damages like emotional distress are typically not recoverable for property damage. The common law does, however, allow a plaintiff to recover sentimental damages for the loss of “heirloom” property, which is inconsistent with the general rule. The plaintiffs pointed out this inconsistency, but the court artfully rejected the argument:

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 law is no stranger to incongruity, and we need not jettison Brown [v. Frontier Theatres, Inc., 369 S.W.2d 299 (Tex.1963)] in order to refuse to extend it to categories of property beyond heirlooms.

The Court also made strong public-policy arguments against noneconomic damages for the loss of a pet. First, the Court took issue with crafting a law that elevated dogs to the level of humans for the purpose of assessing damages:

The court of appeals’ decision works a peculiar result, effectively allowing ‘wrongful death’ damages for pets. Loss of companionship is a component of loss of consortium—a form of personal-injury damage, not property damage—and something we have ‘narrowly cabined’ to two building-block human relationships: husband-wife and parent-child. The Medlens request something remarkable: that pet owners have the same legal footing as those who lose a spouse, parent, or child.

[T]he Medlens seek emotion-based damages for the death of ‘man’s best friend’ when the law denies such damages for the death of a human best friend. For all their noble and praiseworthy qualities, dogs are not human beings, and the Texas common-law tort system should not prioritize human-animal relationships over intimate human-human relationships, particularly familial ones.

Second, the Court was persuaded by numerous amicus curiae who argued that permitting emotion-based damages for the loss of a pet would increase the potential liability of animal caregivers, would result in a pet-litigation “cottage industry,” would deter pet adoptions, and would ultimately lead to more euthanasia. Furthermore, veterinarians who would be forced to practice “defensive medicine” would increase their fees. The higher costs would deter owners from obtaining necessary medical treatments for their pets, and pet health would suffer from the change in the law sought be the Medlens.

Lastly, courts are not equipped to draw the lines necessary to implement the rule adopted by the court of appeals. The Supreme Court felt this was an area better suited to legislation:

[T]he issue is not whether the Court can draw lines, but whether it should. After all, people form genuine bonds with a menagerie of animals, so which ‘beloved family pets’ … would merit such preferred treatment? Domesticated dogs and cats only …? Furry, but not finned or feathered? What about goldfish? Pythons? Cockatiels?

Similarly, while statutory damage caps exist in various types of cases involving people, the court of appeals’ decision leaves matters wholly unconfined. Such broad, unstructured liability would invite peculiar results. Under Heiligmann [v. Rose, 16 S.W. 931, 932 (Tex.1891)], for example, if a Westminster best-of-breed champion with a $20,000 market value is negligently destroyed, that would be its owner’s top-end recovery. But if a 15-year-old frail dog with no market value dies, the owner could sue for unlimited emotional-injury damages. We could impose damages limits, but such fine-tuning is more a legislative function than a judicial one.

While the decision is a defeat for many pet owners and animal activists, the Court did not entirely foreclose the possibility of recovering emotional damages for the loss of a pet. First, potential claimants are probably limited to seeking relief from the Texas legislature. The Court cited statutes in Tennessee [Tenn. Code Ann. §44-17-403], Maryland [73 Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. §11-110 (2012)], and Illinois [510 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 70/16.3 (West 2012)] that directly address the issue and could serve as models.

Second, it is significant that the plaintiffs in Strickland alleged only negligence. The Court did not discuss the possibility that potential claimants might be able to distinguish their case based on the wrongdoer’s culpability. By reaffirming the basic principles established in Heiligmann—the 1891 case in which the defendant intentionally poisoned the plaintiff’s dogs—the Court probably foreclosed this argument. But in 1963, the Eastland Court of Appeals seemed to permit mental-anguish damages for the intentional killing of a family dog. In City of Garland v. White, 368 S.W.2d 12 (Tex.App.—Eastland 1963, writ ref’d n.r.e.), police officers trespassed on the plaintiff’s property and intentionally shot and killed the plaintiff’s dog when it no longer posed a threat to public safety. As a result, the plaintiff became nervous, missed time from school, and experienced a decline in the quality of his school work. The jury awarded the plaintiff $200 for mental pain and suffering. The issue on appeal was whether the evidence supported the award—not whether the award was cognizable under Texas law.

Based on the Strickland opinion, the plaintiff in White would probably not win the argument today, but all is not lost. Texas does recognize the special importance of animals in our society. According to the Court, “[t]hat is precisely why Texas law forbids animal cruelty generally (both civilly and criminally), and bans dog fighting and unlawful restraints of dogs specifically—because animals, though property, are unique.” The Court also cited a comment from the Restatement (Third) of Torts: “[R]ecovery for intentionally inflicted emotional harm is not barred when the defendant’s method of inflicting harm is by means of causing harm to property, including an animal.” Thus, if the Legislature does not act, plaintiffs in cases like White and Heiligmann could recover emotional damages on a common-law theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

For more on causes of action involving property and the infliction of emotional distress, check out O’Connor’s Texas Causes of Action.

, ,