For many Texans, a treasured pet is loved like a friend, companion, or even a child. The term “fur baby” has become a widely known and used term of endearment for the cats, dogs and other animals we keep and love as our own. The death of a pet can be devastating to any pet owner, and even more so in the event of a wrongful death caused by another whether it be negligent or intentional. You may be wondering what damages you can seek in such an event and what Texas law has to say about this.
Heiligmann v. Rose (1981)
The measure of damages for a pet has been upheld for over 130 years. The 1981 Texas Supreme Court decision in Heiligmann v. Rose concluded that the law recognized a property interest in a pet, and the owner can therefore be entitled to remedy following a trespass or other infraction to such a property interest. Heiligmann v. Rose, 16 S.W. 931, 932 (1981). To reach this conclusion, the Court first considered that the measure of damages for loss of a pet is constrained to the market value of the animal or the value of the animal’s usefulness and services. The “market value” to mean value at which the pet would sell. Id at 931. However, the Court noted that it can be difficult to show evidence of the market value of a pet and where a pet’s market value is unascertainable, the correct measure for damages is derived from its usefulness and services to the owner. Id. at 932.
Strickland v. Medlend (2013)
In 2013, this decision was revisited in the Texas Supreme Court case, Strickland v. Medlend, and the Court opined on the issue of whether damages could be calculated for “loss of companionship” in the event of the death of a pet. These damages would be considered non-economic damages and would be rooted solely in emotional attachment. Strickland v. Medlend, 397. S.W.3d 184, 185 (2013). The Court considered the notion that many pet owners view their pets, not as personal property but as members of their family. The Court even cited a study that showed many pet owners take their pets on vacation, are likely to put their lives in danger to save their pets, spend just as much money on their pets as they do their children and even would rather be stranded on a deserted island with a cat or dog than with another human. Id. at 188-9.
In this case, the pet owners sued for intrinsic or sentimental damages because the dog had little to no market value and was an irreplaceable member of their family. The Court concluded that a loss of companionship claim is a component of loss of consortium, which includes the loss of “love, affection, protection, emotional support, services, companionship, care, and society.” Id. at 191. There are extensive limitations when applying loss of consortium damages including that they are only available for a few especially close family relationships. The Court concluded that to allow such damages in lost pet cases would be inconsistent with these limitations. Id.
Much to the sadness of many Texas pet owners, this case did not bring the results they wanted and instead upheld the 100-year-old rule that prohibits the recovery of loss of companionship or emotional distress damages for the wrongful death of a pet. While the Court in this case ended its opinion by stating this was not a matter to be enshrined by Texas common law, it did invite the matter to be legislated in the future. The method for calculating damages for the loss of a pet, being the market value of the animal or the value of the animal’s usefulness and services, remains intact for now, but there could be hope for Texas pet owners under future legislation.
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