Texas Supreme Court Issues Important Decision for Pet Litigation Damages

Earlier today, the Texas Supreme Court issued an opinion refusing to allow noneconomic damages for loss of a pet in a case involving a local municipal shelter. You can read the entire opinion at http://www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us/historical/2013/apr/120047.pdf.

The plaintiffs in the Medlen case argued that a pet owner should be entitled to loss of “intrinsic” value for the sentimental loss of their “property,” much like courts allow for loss of a rare family heirloom. The opinion reasoned that an owner’s attachment to a beloved pet is different than a person’s sentimental feeling for an heirloom. Pets  afford “here-and-now benefits”—company, recreation, protection, etc.—unlike a passed-down heirloom kept around chiefly to commemorate past events or passed family members. The court stated that “while no two pets are alike, the emotional attachments a person establishes with each pet cannot be shoe-horned into keepsake-like sentimentality for litigation purposes.”

The AVMA and several other organizations suggested to the court that expanding liability to include emotion-based damages will make pet ownership more expensive and harm access to veterinary care.

Do you agree with the decision in Medlen?


6 thoughts on “Texas Supreme Court Issues Important Decision for Pet Litigation Damages

  1. I am disgusted by the AVMA interference that was obviously more concerned with it ever coming back to bite them in the ass as a ruling that “opens the door” for negligence claims in the future, than it was for animal life and value.
    When we take our animals to the vet and they undergo any type of surgery or treatment, we SIGN a waiver indicating we understand the risks…etc..etc. It releases them of liability. That even covers instances when they make a mistake and don’t own up to it. What more do you want?
    I can even admit that if I screw up and it results in a death, I need to be both fired and disciplined on record.
    In this case, some lazy idiot accidentally killed someone’s pet. We are taught to CONSTANTLY check and re-check and RECHECK again both the animal and the records and the medicine or treatment. Should they not be as well in an animal control?

    • Marie: While I can appreciate your perspective, I can tell you that veterinarians and other animal care professionals do get sued for negligence even if the client signs a consent form that he or she understands the risks of the procedure. Veterinarians do not have immunity from malpractice suits. In fact, they also face discipline from state licensing boards if they violate professional conduct rules. The only issue in this case was how to calculate the damages. We think the court got it right by limiting damages to economic items. I also want to say that I feel tremendous empathy for the Medlens’ loss, as did the shelter employee who made the mistake. We just don’t think that increasing the costs on other pet owners to compensate a few is the right for the welfare of most animals.

      • If the decision is that emotional feelings for a pet is not likened to emotional feelings for an object, then I have no problem with that. But I am unclear as to how compensating the emotional trauma (though how to calculate would be difficult) increases costs to other pet owners.

        • If courts and juries start awarding significantly higher amounts for emotional loss, insurance coverage will become more expensive. Also, more lawsuits will be filed, which will require more time and money for veterinarians and other animal care professionals to defend. With very thin margins as it is, increased costs will likely be passed on to other pet owners, who will in effect subsidize the people who will get more money from the lawsuits.

  2. Yes, I agree with not only the decision, but also the reasons stated for making that decision. While pets in today’s society seem to have reached a different level in some cases, the public has not reached any kind of agreement on what that status is. While I see and hear veterinary medicine discussing these issues from a veterinarians point of view and what our responsibilities may be, I don’t see much in the way of what the responsibilities of the owner would be for all kinds of issues (preventive health care, behavioural concerns, housing issues, genetic problems, financial responsibilities, right to euthanize, etc.,). Companion animal veterinary medicine is still discretionary from the public’s point of view. The downturn in the economy has focused attention on the lack of veterinary care being provided by the general public in general. Our profession should continue to discourage the movement to consider animals beyond the scope of sentient beings. They are not people in fur coats.