AVMA, TVMA, AKC, and others oppose Texas appeals court ruling that pets have “sentimental value”

It was just a few weeks ago when animal welfare advocates celebrated a Texas appeals court ruling that allowed a family whose dog was mistakenly euthanized to recover, not just the dog’s market value – as is the case with other types of personal property – but its sentimental value as well. 

It was the first time in Texas, where pets are considered property under the law, that someone was able to sue for a pet’s sentimental value.  Randy Turner, who represented the dog’s owner (pro bono) in the case, told the Star-Telegram “No matter how attached they were to their pet, and no matter how devastated they were by its death….they [pet owners] were only entitled to the ‘market value’ of the animal.”  For Texas courts to now acknowledge that a pet’s value is greater than the cost to acquire it, was truly a victory for animal advocates across the state.

But that victory is now in jeopardy.  The following have filed amicus briefs with the court opposing sentimental value for companion animals. 

The American Kennel Club.  No surprise here, as the AKC opposes, at least in my opinion, almost any animal welfare legislation.  Although I am a little surprised they oppose this, as it would seem to increase the value of all dogs, purebred or not.  More than likely, they are protecting the interests of the boarding kennels who are their supporting members – after all, if the ruling is upheld, kennels could be exposed to higher dollar settlements in cases where dogs die in boarding, and breeders could be exposed to higher dollar settlements in cases where dogs they sell become sick and die. 

The Cat Fancier’s Association.  Also probably protecting the financial interests of their members, although the ruling only applies to dogs, so perhaps they are just along for the ride.

Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.  Again, no surprise here.  PIJAC represents retail stores that sell puppies (and other pets) and they vigorously fight any type of animal welfare laws.  If this ruling were to stand, it would expose their members to higher dollar settlements for damages if a puppy they sell becomes sick and dies. 

American Pet Products Association.  They represent people who manufacture pet toys, so you might not think they’d care.  But then again, when you think about the money – if someone makes a defective toy that causes a dog’s death and gets sued, they’re suddenly on the hook for not just the cost of the dog, but the sentimental value as well. 

Animal Health Institute.  From what I can tell, they represent the pet drug industry.   According to their website, allowing pet owners to collect damages for emotional distress, would cause “a sharp increase in the volume of pet litigation.  They also oppose any use of the term “pet guardian” as opposed to “pet owner.”  AHI isn’t really that much different from lobbyists hired by human drug manufacturers who fight any attempt to increase liability for injuries caused by the drugs they produce. 

American Veterinary Medical Association. AVMA opposes a lot of legislation you’d think they would support (including spay/neuter laws).  But let’s be clear – AVMA does not license veterinarians, nor are veterinarians required to be part of AVMA.  According to their website, AVMA is “a not-for-profit association representing more than 81,500 veterinarians working in private and corporate practice, government, industry, academia, and uniformed services. Structured to work for its members, the AVMA acts as a collective voice for its membership and for the profession.”  So they’re a trade industry group – or a special interest group as it is sometimes called.  They’re representing the business of veterinarians.  If the amount recoverable in court when a pet owners sues a veterinarian increases to include “sentimental value”, then that will affect a veterinary clinic’s bottom line – some more than others.

Texas Veterinary Medical Association.  Ditto the AVMA.  They do not license Texas vets and Texas vets are not required to be members.  According to their website, “TVMA is one of the largest state veterinary medical associations in the nation and is recognized for its leadership on important issues, innovative solutions and effective representation.”  If pets are worth more, than a vet’s liability could be higher.  

It is interesting to note that this ruling not only upholds the idea that pets are worth more than just the cost to acquire them, but could have the added benefit of encouraging those in the pet industry to do a better job of making sure the pets entrusted to them are properly cared for.  It could encourage a whole new level of accountability.  It’s a shame then, that anyone opposes it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying all these organizations are awful or horrible or care more about the money to be made on pets than the pets themselves.  Ok, maybe one or two, but most of them are non-profit trade organizations doing what they are supposed to do – representing the interests, in this case financial, of their members.  And it is possible – in fact quite likely – not all of their members agree with their formal stance.  But if we, as animal welfare advocates, truly want to make a difference in the lives of companion animals, we have to know who opposes our efforts, and try to determine why.

What can you do to help?  According to Randy Turner, “The one thing that will really help our side is if some mainstream animal organizations will file amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs.  This will let the court know that there are lots of organizations and people on our side.”  I’m not a large, mainstream animal organization, but I know some and I’m forwarding this to them.  Won’t you do the same?

For more information, “Fort Worth court says pets worth more than market value”, “For the Love of Avery: Dog Owners Can Recover Sentimental-Value Damages for Loss of Pet”, and “Courthouse News Service

Aside: Filing a lawsuit against an individual shelter staff member for the euthanasia of a dog in a shelter is not something I agree with.  The shelter personnel who are responsible for actually euthanizing animals in shelters are not usually the same ones that decide which animals are euthanized.  The individual who euthanized this dog was most likely just doing his or her job. In this case, however, the City couldn’t be sued (Texas law prohibits is), so there was no other way to force a change in the laws.  According to Randy Turner, “They [the dog’s owners] simply wanted to change the law so that Avery did not die in vain.  We accomplished that goal and if the Medlen ruling is upheld it will be a great victory for animals.  Veterinarians, groomers, and kennels will finally have a legal and financial incentive to properly care for our four-legged friends.”     

Also, according to Mr. Turner, it’s important to note that when a monetary judgment is rendered against a City employee, it’s the City that foots the bill, so the employee would not have
been personally liable.  So I understand the dog’s owners only wanted to force a change to the law, and hopefully they’ve done that.  But while I celebrate the ruling, and hope it stands, I’m still not celebrating how it came about.

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Copyright Rebecca Poling 2011.  All rights reserved.  Email DFWAnimalRescue@att.net if you have a story you’d like to share.

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