While the topic may sound unusual, the question of whether owners can receive punitive damages when their pets are killed is a serious question in many cases. While many accidental deaths of dogs, cats, and other pets do happen every year, there are also many cases where people other than the pet’s owner cause the death of the pet either negligently or even, at times, intentionally. The question was posed to us recently whether, in such a case, the pet’s owner can receive punitive damages for the loss of their animal.
Texas law has been the same on this issue for over 120 years, but it may be changing with the advent of a new case, Medlen v. Strickland (353 S.W.3d 576- Appeals Ft. Worth). Since the 1890s, the Texas Supreme Court has held that plaintiffs cannot receive any sort of punitive damages for the death of dogs, cats, and other pets. Likewise, in such a case, the only damages the pet’s owner can receive is the fair market value of the pet. In instances where the pet is not a pure-bred animal or has some other unusual quality (e.g. being a seeing eye dog), the market value is typically very low, leaving little chance for the plaintiff to recover anything for the loss of their pet. However, the Court of Appeals in the Medlan case recently sided with pet owners and allowed for recovery based on the sentimental or emotional value of the pet.
The case has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, and it remains to be seen whether the Court will change 120 years of settled law to allow pet owners to recovery the emotional value of a pet or not. However, this case is certainly interesting and unusual, and will present an interesting question of law for the Court when they hear the case.