Court Ruling Allows Pet Owners To Sue for Sentimental Value: How Will This Affect You?
You’ve heard the saying, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” Well if a recent ruling by a Texas appeals court is upheld, “everything” could now include veterinary monetary damages awarded to pet owners.
Last month, the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth reinstated a couple’s lawsuit against an animal shelter that accidentally euthanized their 8-year-old dog, allowing the couple to sue for the sentimental value of their pet.
It’s the first time in Texas that someone can sue for a pet’s sentimental value, according to Randy Turner, the plaintiffs’ attorney.
Jeremy and Katherine Medlen sued a former shelter worker for negligence in 2009, after their dog, Avery, escaped from the family’s home and was mistakenly euthanized. They sued the worker, Carla Strickland, for Avery’s “sentimental or intrinsic value.” A judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying damages could only be recovered for the market value of the pet. The Medlens appealed and won.
“Because of 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,” the Second Court of Appeals states in its 11-page ruling.
Dogs are considered personal property under Texas law. However, Strickland argued that an 1891 ruling by the Texas Supreme Court allows dogs to be treated differently under the law than other personal property. The Appeals court disagreed.
“Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners,” the court said. “Today, we interpret timeworn supreme court law in light of subsequent supreme court law to acknowledge that the special value of ‘man‘s best friend’ should be protected.”
That 1891 decision in Heiligmann v. Rose said the value of a dog may be determined by “either a market value, if the dog has any, or some special or pecuniary value to the owners, that may be ascertained by reference to the usefulness and services of the dog.”
According to the Second Court of Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court has not directly dealt with the value of a lost pet since Heiligmann, but as mentioned above, has ruled in more recent cases that damages for personal property may be awarded based on sentimental value.
“Heiligmann does not say that special value is derived ‘solely’ from usefulness or services and that it does not include companionship and sentimental value,” the ruling states. “It certainly did not rule out companionship or sentimental value.”
What does this mean for the veterinary profession? If upheld, the ruling by the Second Court of Appeals could have a far reaching impact on the veterinary world.
“If we see other courts follow, consequences will be great,” said Adrian Hochstadt, State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, American Veterinary Medical Association. “It will change the relationship between the veterinarian and the client.”
“It raises the somewhat dormant issue of whether or not the law will continue to view animals as merely a form of ‘property’ and continue to limit damage awards for veterinary malpractice claims to the value of the animal,” Douglas C. Jack, B.A., LL.B., added.
“If that is the case,” Jack continued, “Then the likely response from malpractice insurers will be to increase malpractice insurance premiums commensurate with the risks involved—these increased costs would, undoubtedly, be passed on to the consumer of veterinary services.”
Bonnie Lutz, Shareholder, Klinedinst PC, said the ruling will have more of an impact on shelters, not veterinarians.
“This is a wakeup call to all the shelters that they need to make sure they’re following policies and procedures,” Lutz said.
Still Lutz, Jack, and others believe it’s premature to start panicking.
“At this point, it means nothing,” Lutz said.
“This is merely just another of the plethora of cases that have commented on the issue of whether or not the courts should recognize some special relationship that animal owners have with their pets,” Jack commented.
“This one case is not going to change course of history,” added Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD. “If the past is evidence of the future, this case may be nothing.”
In the meantime, Douglas Jack says veterinarians should concentrate on what they’re doing well.
“It should not result in veterinarians practicing more defensively in my view,” he said. “Rather, I think that small veterinary practices should merely continue to do a good job in the healthcare of animals and provide excellent service.”
In contrast, Charlotte Lacroix argues veterinarians should focus their efforts on demands they’re not meeting.
“Veterinarians aren’t getting sued because of the sentimental value of pets; veterinarians are getting sued because they’re not communicating with clients,” she said.
So how can veterinarians practice better communication to avoid ending up in the courtroom?
“They should adopt the ‘Three C’s of Malpractice Avoidance,’” Jack said. “First, invest in competency, second, communicate well and third, demonstrate sincere compassion by apologizing to a client when a devastating event occurs.”
Related article: The 3C's of Malpractice Avoidance
Hochstadt agrees, adding there are two keys for deterring lawsuits.
“Veterinarians could really cut back on their risks if they keep good medical records and practice good communication,” Hochstadt added.
There’s no word on whether Carla Strickland will appeal the ruling. If there is no appeal, the case would likely go back to trial court.
In the meantime, the debate over how the ruling will affect veterinarians and pet owners will continue.