Court asks how much a dog's life is worth

Landmark ruling allows owners to sue for 'sentimental' damages

Published On: Feb 15 2012 02:03:59 PM CST   Updated On: Feb 16 2012 01:27:27 PM CST

How much is your dog worth? Some might say a dog is worth the amount of money an owner paid for him or the amount the dog could fetch in a sale. But for some pet owners, it’s far more complicated. For many, a dog becomes a true family member whose value can’t be defined by dollars and cents.

A controversial Texas court decision has people talking and arguing about this very issue. Last November, Fort Worth's 2nd Court of Appeals ruled that value can be attached to the love of a dog, contradicting a 120-year-old Texas Supreme Court decision that said plaintiffs could only recover the market value for their pets in wrongful death cases.

The recent case involved a Texas couple whose dog, Avery, escaped from their backyard and was picked up by animal control. When the husband found Avery at the local animal shelter the next day, he did not have enough money to pay for the dog’s release. The owner was told he could return the next day and a “hold for owner” tag was placed on Avery’s cage. When the owner returned, the dog had been euthanized. The couple sued a shelter employee, claiming the employee’s negligence caused the dog’s death.

The couple argued Avery’s value could not be determined by market value and looked to recover "sentimental and intrinsic" damages. After their lawsuit was dismissed in trial court on the grounds that it failed to state a claim for damages recognized by law, the Court of Appeals overturned that ruling. This took direct aim at an 1891 Texas Supreme Court decision that held a plaintiff could recover only the market value of a dog or the particular value of a dog’s services to the owner.

"Until now, U.S. law has always treated pets as personal property, meaning recovery of damages for the loss of a pet is limited to that animal’s fair market value," explains Houston personal injury attorney Sean Tracey of the Tracey Law Firm. "But this Texas decision opens up the possibility that owners who feel their pets were wrongful death victims could recoup much more than market value in court."

"That thought has veterinarians, kennel owners, and dog sitters on edge," says attorney Martin Sweet of legal information website THELAW.TV. "They’re worried the decision will put them at risk of being sued for negligence and steep damages every time a pet dies in their care."

It’s an issue that we’re sure to hear more about in the coming months. The shelter employee who was sued asked the Texas Supreme Court to reverse the latest decision. The high court has not yet decided if it will hear the case.