The Medlen family of Fort Worth, Texas, found themselves in this tragic position after an animal shelter mistakenly killed their dog, Avery, according to the Star-Telegram.
Avery, an 8-year-old Labrador-mix, escaped from his backyard during a thunderstorm and wound up in an animal shelter. Jeremy Medlen went to the shelter the next day to claim Avery, but learned that he had to pay $80 to pick up the dog. He came back again the next day with the money, and this time was told that the shelter wouldn’t release Avery until a veterinarian had microchipped him.
When Jeremy returned a third time he left empty-handed — because the shelter had killed his dog.
The Medlens sued.
The law in Texas, as in most states, has been that an animal is worth only its market value. No matter how appalling the shelter’s conduct was or how devastated the Medlens were, the most a court would award the grieving family would be what Avery would fetch on the open market.
The law treats humans very differently. If a child was negligently killed, her parents could go to court and recover a large sum to compensate them for their suffering.
But if their empty, parked car was totaled, they would get no more than what it cost to replace the car — and in the eyes of the law, animals are generally treated the same as a car or any other non-sentient, inanimate object with no emotional relationship to people.
Some states have progressed beyond that archaic thinking and ruled that people can recover damages for emotional distress due to injuries to their pets, and Texas recently announced that it will consider whether to follow suit in the Medlens’ case. In California, for example, emotional distress damages are available from a person who intentionally injured a pet, according to the ABA Journal. A recent court opinion awarded a couple $50,000 for the emotional distress their neighbor caused them by injuring their dog with a baseball bat. (The dog, Romeo, required surgery to repair his leg.)
The California court opinion “noted that courts in Washington, Florida and Louisiana have also allowed damages for mental suffering caused by a defendant’s wrongful acts resulting in a pet’s injury or death.” Kentucky and Idaho have also awarded damages for emotional distress. Other states, like New Jersey, have gone the other way, with that state’s highest court ruling that a woman was not entitled to damages for the distress she endured watching a neighbor’s dog kill her dog.
One explanation for many state courts’ reticence to award damages for emotional suffering in these cases is the “tort reform” movement, which is based on the opinion that people sue too often, juries award them too much money, insurance companies respond by raising rates and businesses suffer as a result. One argument often made against plaintiffs in pet injury cases is that if they won, veterinarians would have to buy malpractice insurance that could be prohibitively expensive.
For instance, the shelter’s lawyer in the Texas case argued that granting the Medlens damages for emotional injuries would “have a ‘devastating’ effect on the economy, forcing veterinarians to pay more for malpractice insurance and pet owners to pay more for vet visits,” the Star-Telegram reports. Tort reform arguments against large medical malpractice awards rely on exaggerations and myths; in the veterinary realm there is very little data to support them.
Another objection to awarding damages for distress stems from a fear of equating non-human animals with people. The New Jersey court illustrated this in its opinion. Under New Jersey law, damages are available for someone who watches a close family member die, but the definition of close family is strict. If it were to expand the definition to include beloved animal companions, the court worried, it “would require either that we vastly expand the classes of human relationships that would qualify for…damages or that we elevate relationships with animals above those we share with other human beings.”
In other words, the court felt that if it granted damages to the grieving pet owner who watched her beloved dog die, it would either be saying that animals are more important than humans that the plaintiff didn’t have a close relationship with, or it would have to rule that the plaintiff could claim damages for seeing any human die just to make sure that animals were never more important than people under the law.
But this argument ignores reality: people can have very close, emotional relationships with their animal companions, and can suffer deeply when that animal is hurt or killed. Let’s hope that the court in Texas recognizes the importance of pets in people’s lives and compensates them fairly for their suffering.