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If Your Pet Suffers, Should Someone Have to Pay?

If Your Pet Suffers, Should Someone Have to Pay?

It’s horrible to imagine, but what if someone killed your pet? Is there anything you could do about it?

The Medlen family of Fort Worth, Texas, found themselves in this tragic position after an animal shelter mistakenly killed their dog, Avery, according to the Star-Telegram.

Avery, an 8-year-old Labrador-mix,†escaped from his backyard during a thunderstorm and wound up in an animal shelter. Jeremy Medlen went to the shelter the next day to claim Avery, but learned that he had to pay $80 to pick up the dog. He came back again the next day with the money, and this time was told that the shelter wouldn’t release Avery until a veterinarian had microchipped him.

When Jeremy returned a third time he left empty-handed — because the shelter had killed his dog.

The Medlens sued.

The law in Texas, as in most states, has been that an animal is worth only its market value. No matter how appalling the shelter’s conduct was or how devastated the Medlens were, the most a court would award the grieving family would be what Avery would fetch on the open market.

The law treats humans very differently. If a child was negligently killed, her parents could go to court and recover a large sum to compensate them for their suffering.

But if their empty, parked car was totaled, they would get no more than what it cost to replace the car — and in the eyes of the law, animals are generally treated the same as a car or any other non-sentient, inanimate object with no emotional relationship to people.

Some states have progressed beyond that archaic thinking and ruled that people can recover damages for emotional distress due to injuries to their pets, and Texas recently announced that it will consider whether to follow suit in the Medlens’ case. In California, for example, emotional distress damages are available from a person who intentionally injured a pet, according to the ABA Journal. A recent court opinion awarded a couple $50,000 for the emotional distress their neighbor caused them by injuring their dog with a baseball bat. (The dog, Romeo, required surgery to repair his leg.)

The California court opinion “noted that courts in Washington, Florida and Louisiana have also allowed damages for mental suffering caused by a defendantís wrongful acts resulting in a petís injury or death.” Kentucky and Idaho have also awarded damages for emotional distress. Other states, like New Jersey, have gone the other way, with that state’s highest court ruling that a woman was not entitled to damages for the distress she endured watching a neighbor’s dog kill her dog.

One explanation for many state courts’ reticence to award damages for emotional suffering in these cases is the “tort reform” movement, which is based on the opinion that people sue too often, juries award them too much money, insurance companies respond by raising rates and businesses suffer as a result. One argument often made against plaintiffs in pet injury cases is that if they won, veterinarians would have to buy malpractice insurance that could be prohibitively expensive.

For instance, the shelter’s lawyer in the Texas case argued that granting the Medlens damages for emotional injuries would “have a ‘devastating’ effect on the economy, forcing veterinarians to pay more for malpractice insurance and pet owners to pay more for vet visits,” the Star-Telegram reports. Tort reform arguments against large medical malpractice awards rely on exaggerations and myths; in the veterinary realm there is very little data to support them.

Another objection to awarding damages for distress stems from a fear of equating non-human animals with people. The New Jersey court illustrated this in its opinion. Under New Jersey law, damages are available for someone who watches a close family member die, but the definition of close family is strict. If it were to expand the definition to include beloved animal companions, the court worried, it “would require either that we vastly expand the classes of human relationships that would qualify for…damages or that we elevate relationships with animals above those we share with other human beings.”

In other words, the court felt that if it granted damages to the grieving pet owner who watched her beloved dog die, it would either be saying that animals are more important than humans that the plaintiff didn’t have a close relationship with, or it would have to rule that the plaintiff could claim damages for seeing any human die just to make sure that animals were never more important than people under the law.

But this argument ignores reality: people can have very close, emotional relationships with their animal companions, and can suffer deeply when that animal is hurt or killed. Let’s hope that the court in Texas recognizes the importance of pets in people’s lives and compensates them fairly for their suffering.


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5:26AM PDT on May 23, 2013

"Let me just say that the police would have been there the second day if it was my dog.


anybody that buys a dog from a breeder instead of rescuing a dog who needs a home is acting strictly from ego and very foolish and heartless. Shame on them!"

"All shelters need to be no kill. It ought to be a federal law."

I just wanted to say to these comments... 100%

5:21AM PDT on May 23, 2013

“would require either that we vastly expand the classes of human relationships that would qualify for…damages or that we elevate relationships with animals above those we share with other human beings.”

So in other words, they are afraid of the truth.

The problem with this kind of thing is, people are so afraid of something they have not even tried before. They rail against it saying that all kinds of bad things will happen, when the truth is, they have no idea what will happen. It's more logical that we SHOULD try elevating animals above humans in the law. The old way of treating animals like objects is part of what's gotten us into the mess we are in to begin with. I makes sense to try a different way and see what happens.

7:03AM PDT on May 5, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

5:39AM PST on Nov 15, 2012

Let me just say that the police would have been there the second day if it was my dog. I would not have left without it and would have made such a scene that they would have remembered me for years to come. Once they know that it is your dog they have no right to keep it. Actually they have no right to force you to put a microchip in the animal if it is your dog. A fine I can understand but altering the animal in any way is not their job. I am in favor of microchips don't get me wrong but not at the demand of anyone else. I am looking for a rescue dog and I am shocked at the cost of such animals. We always made a donation in the past but now they are putting prices on them depending on their look, age and breed. I understand that they have costs for neutering and such that they want to recoup but a family who is in not very comfortable financially cannot even adopt any longer. And one more thing......anybody that buys a dog from a breeder instead of rescuing a dog who needs a home is acting strictly from ego and very foolish and heartless. Shame on them!

2:54PM PST on Nov 14, 2012

Ooooo! This just makes me sick.

2:53PM PST on Nov 14, 2012

All shelters need to be no kill. It ought to be a federal law.

12:52PM PST on Nov 14, 2012

i ditto all above remarks can't say enough for this happening

10:18PM PDT on Oct 17, 2012

People should be compensated for incompetence of others !!! People who hold down a job should be consensus enough to be good at it~~

10:04PM PDT on Oct 15, 2012

How sad, and yes, unjust! Humans get "compensatory" damages all the time and often, it's in the millions for their "future" pain & suffering. My Golden Retreiver that I lost (due to cancer) last January, at the age of 14, was my family and no amount of money could have compensated me for his loss. In his case, he was purebred and registered and I COULD have shown a court his "worth" what a purebred GR goes for on the open market, but that is not anywhere near what he was worth to ME!

This shelter screwed up. I can understand a fine if the dog was running loose (no license) and got picked up, but to demand a ransom like that and then euthanizing the dog because the owner didn't have the money the next day is ridiculous. I wonder if Avery truly was euthanized, or maybe sold to a research lab and the owner merely TOLD he had been PTS? Once my two dogs got picked up when they jumped my fence and joined a pack of strays following a female "in heat". The neighbors saw Animal Control pick them up, but when I called, I was told they weren't there. I went t the shelter anyway and nothing in their paperwork, but I heard my male barking in the back room and found him there! I was told, just a clerical "error". The female was at a vet's as she'd been bumped by a car, but the record on her only surfaced after I made an issue about them having the male! They planned on selling both dogs, and I know that. BOTH were licensed, so they just lied to me.

4:34AM PDT on Oct 13, 2012

This is a crime. He came to the shelter three times, and they didn't give him his dog. This shelter should be shut down.

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