The case asks if the Medlen family, who argued that its pet was euthanized due to the negligence of an animal-control shelter, could seek damages for their emotional loss or whether they were limited to the (presumably much lower) economic value of the dog.

The court of appeals held that Texas law permitted a claim for emotional damages as an aspect of the “intrinsic value” of the dog as property. The court of appeals reasoned that Texas law had changed a great deal since 1891 (when the Texas Supreme Court first confronted this question) and that sentimental damages had been permitted for some other narrow classes of property claims. This court of appeals decision created a split with other Texas courts of appeals and triggered this petition for review, which attracted an understandable amount of press attention.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals. holding that Texas’s general common-law does not provide for the recovery of emotional-loss damages in this situation.

Justice Willett’s opinion (PDF) for the Court effusively acknowledges the important role that pets play in American society — noting that there are more pets than people in America, and four times as many pets as children.

But the Court chose to adhere to its 1891 decision in Heiligmann v. Rose, 16 S.W. 931 (Tex. 1891), that the value for the death of a dog was limited to “market value, if the dog has any” or some “special or pecuniary value to the owner, that may be ascertained by reference to the usefulness and services of the dog.” As the opinion explained, the Heiligmann test focuses on economic impact, not emotional loss.

Along the way, the Court distinguished Brown v. Frontier Theatres, Inc., 369 S.W.2d 299 (Tex. 1963), its prior case permitting recovery for the loss of some family heirlooms (such as a wedding dress and a pistol that had been passed down several generations). The pivot of the Court’s reasoning is on page 12 of today’s slip opinion:

An owner’s attachment to a beloved pet is more: It is emotional. Pets afford here-and-now benefits — company, recreation, protection, etc. — unlike a passed-down heirloom kept around chiefly to commemorate past events or passed family members.

This step echoes the tone of the opinion: Pets are so important it would be inappropriate for courts to try to measure their emotional loss in this manner.

The precise distinction that the Court offers from Brown is that pets have some measurable, current utility value while family heirlooms do not (although I suspect that the producers of “Antiques Roadshow” would tell you that the market value of many heirlooms exceeds the market value of your average much-beloved pet). (( One also wonders whether the pistol mentioned in Brown could still have offered protection from intruders. It would be a puzzling rule of law that a well-maintained antique — such as a family clock passed down through the years — has less value under the law than one of the same age and history that has fallen into disrepair. )) That distinction, taken in isolation, does not seem particularly satisfying as a way to explain the outcome here. (( As the Court notes later in the opinion, the Medlens posed the hypothetical that under the Court’s rule “they could seek sentimental damages if a taxidermied [pet] had been negligently destroyed” but not if a living pet had been. Especially in light of the Court’s holding here, I doubt that the Brown family-heirloom case could be stretched that far, but it is an excellent hypothetical. )) I would instead read this part of the Court’s opinion as a common-law court politely declining to extend Brown beyond family heirlooms, without quite confining it to its facts.

The reason why the Court declines is explained in the next few sentences:

We agree with the amicus brief submitted by the American Kennel Club (joined by several other pet-welfare groups): ‘While no two pets are alike, the emotional attachments a person establishes with each pet cannot be shoe-horned into keepsake-like sentimentality for litigation purposes.’ Finally, as explained below, permitting sentiment-based damages for destroyed heirloom property portends nothing resembling the vast public-policy impact of allowing such damages in animal-tort cases.

That may be the nub of it. This is a pure common-law case, unfettered by statute, so the Court has broad discretion to tweak Texas tort law to better fit the duties we expect of our neighbors in the modern world.

In the Court’s judgment, the policy reasons against expanding the measure of damages here outweighed those in favor. The opinion discusses amicus briefs filed by groups on both sides of the issue (at pages 17-18) — with some pet-related groups warning that tort liability could cause unintended harmful consequences to veterinarians or others who try to render aid to animals. Some other groups argued that pets would be better protected if the law did acknowledge the value of pets.

The Court compared this aspect of its role in a common-law tort case to conducting a “cost-benefit analysis,” weighing the arguments of both sides. (If you collect examples of the Court taking amicus arguments seriously, this opinion might be a good one to bookmark.) Having heard both sides, it ultimately chose not to expand tort liability to include emotional-loss damages for pets.

What’s next?

The Court ended by inviting the Legislature to take action. It noted favorably a Tennessee law from about a decade ago that set up a limited cause of action for pet owners to sue for damages.

The opinion does not discuss whether a different damage rule might apply to negligent conduct as opposed to intentional conduct — a question not really raised in this case (which alleged only negligence). Some areas of tort law do draw that distinction — including mental-anguish damages, the propriety of which can turn on the culpability of the wrongdoer.

Few people want a rule of liability so harsh that it would deter animal-welfare workers from trying to help injured or lost animals. That weighs against heavy liability for negligent but well-meaning misconduct.

But there is a deep and visceral reaction to intentional killings of a neighbor’s (or stranger’s) pets, as the famous Star-Telegram headline from March 13, 1990 attests. (( Perhaps it’s that I grew up in a time of relative peace and prosperity, but half a lifetime away, I still remember this headline vividly. ))

When the Legislature considers whether and how to measure damages for the loss of a pet, drawing a distinction between negligence and intentional acts may help bring the two sides of this debate together. The death of a pet is an inevitable sadness in the life of a pet owner. But the manner of that death surely affects how we, and the law, should feel about it. They say that even a dog understands the difference between being tripped over and being kicked. Dog owners do, too.