In law school many a year ago, our Real Property professor assured the class one day that "you can find authority for either side of any legal proposition in the opinions of the Texas Court of Civil Appeals." How right he has proved to be.
The Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas (Fort Worth) ruled earlier this month that the owners of a dog that had been erroneously euthanized by an animal shelter "can recover intrinsic or sentimental damages for the loss" of their pet.
The case is Medlen v. Strickland (11/3/2011), and the facts before the trial court were largely undisputed. The Medlens' dog "Avery" escaped from their yard and was eventually picked up by Animal Control and taken to a shelter. The Medlens quickly learned their dog's whereabouts, but when Jeremy Medlen showed up to retrieve Avery, he was unprepared to pay the necessary fees for the dog's release. Jeremy was told that he could return in the morning, and Avery's enclosure was marked with a "hold for owner" tag. Carla Strickland, a shelter employee, made a list of dogs to be euthanized that evening and, for whatever reason, overlooked or ignored the "hold for owner" tag. When Jeremy Medlen returned with the requisite fees the next morning, he learned that Avery had already joined the choir invisible.
The Medlens sued Strickland for her negligence in bringing about Avery's death. They acknowledged that Avery had had little or no market value, but argued that they should be able to recover "sentimental or intrinsic value" because Avery was "irreplaceable." The trial judge ruled that those damages were not recoverable and dismissed the case; the Medlens appealed.
The trial judge was persuaded by a Texas Supreme Court decision from 1891, Heiligmann v. Rose, in which the plaintiff's three dogs had been poisoned by a neighbor. The evidence there showed that the dogs' market value (in the sense of what they could have been sold for) was about $5 each, but the Texas Supreme Court found that a higher amount of damages could be recovered based on the owner's showing of the dogs' "usefulness and services." In the 120 years since, the state Supreme Court has not revisited the valuation of a companion animal, and Heiligmann had come to be interpreted to mean that the only way to recover anything other than "market value" for an animal's death is by the sort of showing of "usefulness" to the owner that had been made in that case.
Since Heiligmann, however, the Texas high court has considered how to value other sorts of property found to be lacking in true "market value." In particular, a line of cases has determined that "sentimental" value can be considered when the property that is damaged or destroyed—such as family photos, keepsakes, heirlooms and the like—is of value to no one other than its owner. On appeal in this case the Medlens argued, and the Court of Appeals agreed, that a consistent interpretation of the law should require that animals with purely sentimental value be valued in the same way as any other kind of market-valueless property. In other words, because the dog has no value otherwise determinable, the court concluded that its sentimental value provides the proper measure of damages.
The Court of Appeals in Medlen is insistent that it is only "interpreting" Heiligmann, not overruling it. (As an intermediate appellate court, it has no authority to actually overrule a Supreme Court decision, however old that decision may be.) In its interpretation, however, the Court expressly declined to follow relatively recent decisions from other divisions of the Court of Appeals that have construed Heiligmann to limit or preclude sentimental value as a consideration in animal cases. The upshot, then, seems to be—but don't take my word for it, since I am not a Texas lawyer—that Heiligmann remains "good law" but that there is a division of opinion within the Court of Appeals over how it should be applied. Presumably a Texas trial court not within the Second District could elect to follow the rule as interpreted in other Districts' opinions. So the true "rule" in Texas is actually undecided, until such time as the Texas Supreme Court itself revisits the question.
Does Medlen have any immediate impact in California? In my view, it should not. In addition to the fact that decisions of out of state courts are not binding upon California courts, the underlying premise of the Medlen decision—that the purely sentimental value of some types of property is compensable in damages—is not consistent with settled California case law and statutes.
Decs&Excs readers may recall that the current state of the law in California turns on two recent decisions. In the 2009 case of McMahon v. Craig, the Court of Appeal found that an animal owner cannot recover damages for emotional distress or "loss of companionship" of an animal that is injured or dies as a result of negligence. More recently, in June 2010, a different division of the Court held in Kimes v. Grosser that the "reasonable" costs of treatment—however that may be determined—can be recovered when an animal is injured, even when those costs substantially exceed the animal's de minimus market value.
Both McMahon and Kimes considered the doctrine known in California as "peculiar value." Peculiar value is the value of property that is unique to its owner, and the doctrine is closely equivalent to what the Texas court calls "intrinsic value." California law differs from Texas law, however, in the manner in which this peculiar/intrinsic value is determined. Unlike the post-Heligmann cases relied upon in Medlen, which specifically permitted "sentimental" value as an element of "intrinsic value," California courts (and federal courts applying California law) have consistently ruled that "peculiar value" must be determined on a "rational" basis, and that sentimental value is a factor that is not to be considered in making that.
Also notable: the concept of "peculiar value" is a creature of statute under California law, codified since 1872 as Civil Code §3355. That statute provides for recovery of peculiar value damages, but only in cases of "willful wrongdoing"—i.e., not in cases where the cause of loss is mere negligence, as in Medlen—or in cases in which the defendant had "notice" of that value prior to the loss occurring.
The current majority rule across the States is that animals are personal property and that market value, or some rationally determined pecuniary value other than mere sentiment, is the appropriate basis on which to calculate damages for loss of an animal. In my opinion, Medlen is most likely not a harbinger of a national shift away from that eminently sensible rule. Medlen is likely to be cited by plaintiffs in animal cases going forward, however, until it is eventually either accepted or expressly rejected on a state by state basis.
Illustration: "In Disgrace" by Bessie Pease Gutmann. And yes, there was a copy of this classic on my bedroom wall when I was but a young pup of a wee sprat.