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Legislative Updates: Can Dog Owners Sue for ‘Emotional Value’?

In Austin, Texas, last week, the state’s supreme court began considering whether or not an owner can sue for the “emotional value” of a dog if the animal dies and another party is found responsible. The Dallas Morning News reports that the case was filed after a shelter in Fort Worth “mistakenly euthanized” a dog that belonged to Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen.

In 2009 the couple went to the shelter to claim their dog, Avery, but were unable to immediately pay the $80 fine required to do so. The shelter reportedly placed a “hold tag” on the dog, but when the Medlens returned with the money they discovered that their pet had mistakenly been put to sleep.

Under Texas law, dogs are considered property, and a person can be jailed for stealing a dog. According to the Dallas Morning News, Texas juries can weigh the sentimental value of property when assessing damages and can compensate for the value of “truly irreplaceable objects,” such as a grandmother’s ring, a family heirloom or other “one-of-a-kind” property. The couple’s attorney, Randall Turner, told the court, “We’re asking dogs to be treated like all other property.”

Dogs today are often treated as members of the family. The Texas Supreme Court is considering whether their loss can result in damages for their “emotional value.” Photo © www.canstockphoto.com.

In September 2012, the Morning News reported that a lower appellate court ruled in 2011 that the Medlens could sue for “sentimental value.” The shelter worker named in their lawsuit, who was said to be “devastated by the mistake,” petitioned the supreme court to review the decision.

The state’s supreme court is not expected to issue a ruling “for several weeks,” but considered numerous scenarios in its deliberations on January 10, 2013. The newspaper reported, however, that the justices “appeared skeptical…of whether dogs should be granted an emotional price tag that humans in many scenarios aren’t even afforded under state law.”

Under current Texas law, a person can seek damages for mental anguish in the death of a parent, spouse or child, but not, for example, a sibling or domestic partner. At least one justice questioned the wisdom of changing the law so that damages can be sought for emotional distress over the loss of a pet when a person couldn’t do the same for the loss of a twin sister.

There are other considerations as well. John Cayce, the attorney representing the shelter worker, noted that this sort of change in the law could result in “skyrocketing insurance premiums for veterinarians terrified of being sued.” Cayce said that the state of Texas is “generous” in compensating owners who have lost dogs with a “marketable value,” such as show dogs or dogs whose owners have invested heavily in training. The Medlen’s dog, unfortunately, did not carry what is referred to as a “market value.”

The American Kennel Club and other animal-service providers, according to the Morning News, do not support this type of law. Attorney Turner noted that the Medlens are not actually trying to collect compensation for the loss of their pet. They want to change the law so that their dog’s loss was not “in vain.”

Breed-Specific Language Supported in Topeka, Kan., Law

In September 2010, the city of Topeka, Kan., adopted a 39-page ordinance that replaced its previous law regarding animal control and animal cruelty. The new law removed from its dangerous dog ordinance breed-specific language that required owners of specific breeds to obtain special licenses and to microchip their dogs. It also allowed the Helping Hands Humane Society to adopt out pit bull-type dogs that are picked up by the city, which was previously against city ordinance.

Bill Acree, executive director of the humane society, reported in September 2011 that in the first year after the new ordinance the percentage of dogs euthanized in the shelter decreased 24 percent. However, after two attacks by pit bulls in December 2012, city council members were asked whether they still support the law as it stands. According to the Capital-Journal, at least one council member, Karen Hiller, believes that the attacks, one against two adults who escaped without life-threatening injuries, the other in which a 2-year-old was killed, would not have been prevented by the old law. Hiller remains steadfast in her opposition to breed-specific laws for the city.

Best In Show Daily provides a biweekly look at dog-related legislation that is being considered, is pending and has passed around the country. The American Kennel Club also maintains an ongoing list of Legislative Alerts of which it feels fanciers should be aware. If you learn of proposed legislation that you feel we should report on, please feel free to contact me at Christi@bestinshowdaily.com.

Written by

Christi McDonald is a second-generation dog person, raised with a kennel full of Cairn Terriers. After more than a decade as a professional handler’s apprentice and handling professionally on her own, primarily Poodles and Cairns, she landed a fortuitous position in advertising sales with the monthly all-breed magazine ShowSight. This led to an 11-year run at Dogs in Review, where she wore several hats, including advertising sales rep, ad sales manager and, finally, editor for five years. Christi is proud to be part of the editorial team for the cutting-edge Best In Show Daily. She lives in Apex, N.C., with two homebred black Toy Poodles, the last of her Foxfire line, and a Norwich Terrier.
  • Jen January 28, 2013 at 3:40 PM

    There is a current case in Broward County, Florida where an emergency vet attempted to do a natural birth on a French Bulldog, then called the owner to tell her the office was closing so come pick up the dog. By the way, two paws are out so you want to get her to your vet. The puppy in the birth canal died, but Florida’s impact law precludes damages for pets. As noted in the article, pets are property to be replaced. Litigation has been ongoing for 2 years.

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