“More than the market value” says appeals court
Jeremy and Katherine Medlen with Avery
When Avery got spooked by a thunderstorm and ran out of his backyard in Fort Worth, Texas, he was picked up by an animal control officer and taken to the city shelter.
Avery’s dad, Jeremy Medlen, went to the shelter the next day, but didn’t have the $95 fee on him. When he came back with the cash, he was told that his golden retriever couldn’t be released until the veterinarian, who was out for a couple of days, had microchipped him. Medlen arrived at the appointed time, and brought the kids, too. But Avery was nowhere to be seen. In spite of the paperwork on his cage, the dog had been killed.
The distraught family filed suit for “sentimental or intrinsic damages.” The court dismissed the case, ruling that the Medlens could only recover the market value of the dog. But a Court of Appeals has reinstated the lawsuit saying that:
“Special value must be more than the market value of a well-trained dog … We believe that the special value…may be derived from the attachment that an owner feels for his pet.”
Randy Turner, the Fort Worth attorney who represents the Medlens told the Fort Worth Star Telegram:
“It is the first time in Texas history that an appeals court has allowed a dog owner to recover sentimental-value damages for the death of a dog. Now a jury can at least put a sentimental value on an animal that is otherwise worthless in terms of what it could have sold for on the open market.”
Two things stand out about this case
On the plus side, more courts are agreeing that family pets are worth more than their retail value, which, in the case of an 8-year-old Lab mix like Avery, is virtually zero. (For another example of how courts are viewing the worth of a pet, see this.)
Until now, Texas only recognized the fair market value of a companion animal. In determining the amount of recovery a human could receive from a wrongful injury or death of a companion animal, Texas would only consider economic factors such as the age, health, breed, special training, usefulness, and any other special characteristics that contributed to their monetary value. These factors all stem from the property-based notion of animals.
So, for the family, it’s a big win, and their case will now go back to the trial court where a judge will consider the merits of the case.
But, on the minus side, pets are still property. And when Katherine Medlen commented that the ruling of the appeals court would change this, she was mistaken. Here’s what she said:
“We wanted to have a law in place that would protect animals from being hurt. Before this, animals were considered property, and you weren’t allowed to sue or be compensated for sentimental value. The hurt we experienced was nowhere comparable to a piece of property.”
But in fact, from a legal perspective, all animals are still considered to be property. Without exception. Including Avery. Katherine’s confusion is understandable. It’s hard to believe that the law still views a living being like Avery the same way it views a chair or a DVD player. The chair, like Avery, might have sentimental value beyond its market value, but it’s still just a piece of property. And what the court was talking about is the emotional value that the “owner” places on the animal. In other words, it’s all still about the owner, not about the animal.
Natalie Prosin is the executive director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is preparing to bring the first-ever case on behalf a single nonhuman animal claiming the right to certain fundamental rights as a “legal person” rather than a piece of legal property. She writes:
The Texas case does nothing to change the property status of animals. Instead, Texas is merely recognizing what a number of states have been recognizing for years: that companion animals may be classified as a type of personal property with which a person may recover for sentimental or intrinsic value.
Sentimental value is determined by the sentimental associations of the owner. Usually it is considered when the property has been damaged or destroyed and has little or no market value. In the past, the Texas courts have awarded damages for the loss of personal property items including a wedding veil, shoes, and a watch.
With its decision to extend this same value to Avery the dog, Texas is merely allowing the owners to recover damages that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to recover since the dog had no economic or market value.
In the final analysis, under the current system, dogs like Avery can never have their day in court. They have no legal rights because they have no legal standing, and they have no legal standing because they are not even legal persons.
And until that changes, the very notion of animal “rights” is fundamentally meaningless.
What you can do: For more information on efforts to achieve legal personhood for nonhuman animals, visit the Nonhuman Rights Project. Here at Zoe, we are working closely with them to accomplish their mission.