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No monetary award for a Texas dog whose primary worth was just love

04/10/2013 9:24 PM

04/11/2013 3:43 PM

Maybe the Medlen family should have argued that Avery dug dandy holes for planting flowers. Or provided an effective, if noisy, warning system to strangers who approached their house. Or even that he offered a convenient surface on which to wipe greasy hands, just like in the olden days before the invention of the sandwich.

But, no. Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen argued that they were entitled to some compensation for sentimental value after a worker at the Fort Worth animal shelter had their dog put down even though a sign said "hold for owner" because the family intended to pick Avery up.

After all, Texas law allows collection of damages for destruction of personal property.

Boo-hoo, we feel your pain, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday -- but, doggone it, the justices said, you aren't getting any money for your loss.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Don Willett made a big production of quoting Lord Byron and feigning sympathy over and over for "heartsick" and "bereaved" dog owners who've been wronged by someone's negligence.

But then he said that's just the point: Any sense of loss people like the Medlens might feel is just emotional attachment, and this Supreme Court isn't going anywhere near recognizing a right to sue for that.

Mind you, you could go to court with some confidence against the broker who mindlessly tossed the 150-year-old family Bible out with the trash after the estate sale. But, Willett wrote, "permitting sentiment-based damages for destroyed heirloom property portends nothing resembling the vast public-policy impact of allowing such damages in animal-tort cases."

Heavens, if monetary damages were available when the pet store paralyzed your dog during grooming, a whole cottage industry of lawyers would spring up to file frivolous suits. If veterinarians had to worry about not killing your pet during neutering, they'd start practicing defensive medicine, which would make costs skyrocket, so people would stop bringing in their pets, they'd get sick and die, or ferals and strays would proliferate, or owners would choose euthanasia instead of treatment, or low-income families would just abandon their beloved companions.

It's the give-a-mouse-a-cookie effect. Just with horrible unintended consequences.

Through the common law, judges over the course of history have recognized certain rights so that those harmed by the negligence of others can be made whole.

Willett notes that Texas law didn't allow damages for wrongful death of a spouse or child until the Legislature authorized it by statute. But you still can't sue for loss of companionship when a sibling, stepchild, grandparent or best friend is negligently killed. And he said it wouldn't be right to allow damages for a pet but not a family member.

Could the real problem be, though, that Texas law needs expanding regarding family members and best friends, not narrowing regarding animal friends?

The last part of Willett's opinion is a three-page discussion of how it's the Legislature's job to decide whether to allow recovery for wrongful destruction of a pet with no clear market value. (It would be different for, say, a valuable show cat or cutting horse whose monetary worth can be documented.)

Courts aren't supposed to issue "advisory" opinions, but Willett pays that no never mind, telling the Legislature it could hold hearings, then laying out some of the considerations to explore and even providing helpful research about laws in Tennessee, Maryland and Illinois that allow limited damages for some animal-negligence cases.

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justice Phil Johnson declined to join that part of the opinion.

Lawmakers should probably take up this area of tort law -- but do their own research and analysis, not just enshrine Willett's words.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.


Twitter: LindaPCampbell

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