Groundbreaking Court Ruling Takes Dogs Beyond "Property" Status; Major Pet Industry Groups Not Happy
A Texas appellate court has made the bold move of effectively taking dogs out of the "property" category and giving them increased legal status. It provides an updated reinterpretation of the law, which traditionally views pets as worth only their market value like a table or a car.
The Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth overturned a lower court's ruling that a couple whose dog was wrongfully euthanized was entitled to damages for only the dog's monetary worth. The new ruling allows for a dog's true worth to be considered.
"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners. Today, we interpret timeworn supreme court law in light of subsequent court law to acknowledge that the special value of 'man's best friend' should be protected," the Court's opinion stated.
With the ruling, the owners of the dog, Avery, could be entitled to damages for "sentimental" or "intrinsic" value. Avery escaped from his yard and was brought to an animal shelter. They went to claim him, but didn't have enough money, so they made arrangements to return when they had it. Despite a "hold for owner" tag on Avery's cage, a shelter employee euthanized him days before his number was up. When the couple came back to pay for Avery's fee, they got the terrible news.
Ironically, in some instances dogs have not been given the same value even as some forms of property. If someone destroys family heirlooms that are of great sentimental value, even though the heirlooms may be nearly financially worthless, damages can be awarded because of their sentimental value. The new court ruling, for which the appellate justices cited a 120-year-old Texas Supreme Court decision as precedent, gives pets at least the same value as other items that are of negligible monetary value but great intrinsic worth.
"Because of the special position pets hold in the 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 other personal property," Justice Lee Gabriel wrote.
The shelter worker who ended Avery's life will appeal the decision. She will be in some pretty powerful company. Surprisingly at least at first glance some of the top pet-industry organizations in the nation are adamantly opposed to the court's decision. The American Veterinary Medical Association (whose well-done newsletter article is the main source for my post), American Kennel Club, the Cat Fanciers' Association, Animal Health Institute, American Pet Products Association, and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council are among those who filed briefs asking the justices to reconsider.
These groups say they fear that the liability from "pain and suffering" claims would cause pet service fees to have to increase greatly and make veterinary care unaffordable for many people with pets.
"If this becomes the law of the land, it will lead to higher costs to own a pet, disproportionally hurting middle-class and low-income pet owners. Who will pay for those higher damage awards? The rest of us pet owners, of course," said Adrian Hochstadt, AVMA assistant director of state legislative and regulatory affairs. "The obvious consequences will include fewer people being able to own pets and, unfortunately, more animal abandonment."
Opponents say the verdict "isolates the Second Court of Texas in American jurisprudence and violated Texas Supreme Court law." Legal experts say the case will likely end up in Texas Supreme Court. It will be interesting to watch this unfold. If the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court's decision, what will the implications be across the nation and across animal law? Could it be the start of a sea change as to how dogs are considered and treated? Could it lead to stiffer punishments of those who abuse animals? Would it open the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits?
I was initially disillusioned when I learned that such major pet industry organizations were opposed to what seemed like something they'd support: that the value of a pet goes beyond its market worth. But they see this as opening the doors to all kinds of pricey lawsuits, so I guess I should not be surprised that they've come out swinging. I'm very interested in your thoughts on this, Dogsters. Also, if there are any legal experts out there who can weigh in, or who can offer some perspective on the case, I'd love to hear from you.