Adjunct Law Prof Blog

Editor: Mitchell H. Rubinstein
New York Law School

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Tort Law: Pets and Sentimental Value

The Supreme Court of Texas heard oral arguments on January 10 to answer whether or not a pet owner can recover for the sentimental value of a dog lost due to another's negligence. 

The case is Carla Strickland v. Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen (Case No. 12-0047).  The case came to the Texas high court following an intermediate appeallate court's opinion reversing a trial court's order dismissing the claim against Strickland with prejudice.  According to a David Yates report in the Southeast Texas Record, the allegations in the case are that an animal shelter took possession of the Medlen's dog after it escaped the Medlen's yard.  Jeremy Medlen went to pick up the animal, but did not have enough money to cover the fees.  Medlen alleges he was told he could come back with the money and a "hold for owner" tag would be put on the dog.  Strickland, it is alleged, neglegently put the dog on the list of animals to be euthanized, and it was, and when Medlen returned for the dog, he learned what had happened.

More after the jump:

The Court does not write on a clean slate in this case.  Fifty years ago, the Court in Brown v. Frontier Theatres, Inc., 369 S.W.2d 299 (Tex. 1963) held that the general rule prohibiting recovery for sentimental value for personal property does not apply in cases where the item destroyed has its "primary value in sentiment."  In Brown, a family lost their possessions when an electrical fire destroyed their quarters at a drive in theatre where they were operators and caretakers.  The Court wrote that such personal property has, "no market value which would adequately compensate their owner for their loss or destruction...In such cases, the most fundamental rule of damages that every wrongful injury or loss...should be adequately and reasonably compensated requires the allowance of damages in compensation for reasonable special value of such articles to their owner taking into account the feelings of the owner for such property."  The appellate court in Strickland, not surprisingly, cited Brown favorably in its opinion reinstating the Medlens' case.

The Restatement is not quite so generous in awarding sentimental value for property with little or no value on the open market:

If the subject matter cannot be replaced, however, as in the case of a destroyed or lost family portrait, the owner will be compensated for its special value to him, as evidenced by the original cost, and the quality and condition at the time of the loss. Likewise an author who with great labor has compiled a manuscript, useful to him but with no exchange value, is entitled, in case of its destruction, to the value of the time spent in producing it or necessary to spend to reproduce it. In these cases, however, damages cannot be based on sentimental value.

Restatement (Second) Torts, Section 911, cmt. e (emphasis added).  Cases following the Restatement's reasoning include Landers v. Municipality of Anchorage, 915 P.2d 614 (Alaska 1996) (value in sentiment denied for destruction of photographs and home movies) and Broyles v. Broyles, 711 P.2d 1119 (Wyo. 1985) (no sentimental value awarded for yearbooks and photographs).

This will be a closely watched case first because (most) everyone loves dogs and can sympathize with the Medlens' plight.    Beyond that, the case has drawn heavy amicus attention on both sides as a ruling in the Medlen's favor could either effectively deny recovery when negligence causes the loss of a beloved family pet, or affect potential liability for veterinarians, shelters and motor vehicle owners and others.

A final decision by the Supreme Court is expected in late 2013.

Craig Estlinbaum

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