Recently, the Texas Supreme Court overturned a judgment that would have awarded “emotional” damages for pain and suffering resulting from a dog pound negligently killing a family's pet dog, 'Avery'. The owner had come to claim Avery, but didn't have enough money to pay the fines. He was told to return by the 10th of the month with the money, but on the seventh of the month, the shelter mistakenly and negligently killed Avery. When the owner returned, he found that his dog Avery had been killed. For most pet owners, this is our worst nightmare, and surely even more egregious an offense than the new laws popping up that require spay/neuter as a condition of release. Hey, at least you'd get your companion back alive, even if he or she was missing a few body parts.
Are companion animals worth more than their market value? Groups such as Nathan Winograd's No-Kill Advocacy Center believe that they are. On the other side of the fence we have the American Kennel Club, the Cat Fancier's Association, and the American Veterinary Veterinary Medical Association. Surprisingly, these prominent animal groups claim that pets should have no sentimental or emotional value in a court of law.
The ruling by the Texas Supreme Court was supported by “amici curiae”, or written briefs/petitions by third parties who offer their information as "friends of the court” in hope of influencing the eventual decision. These amici curiae were submitted by the AKC and the Cat Fanciers' Association, both of whom urged that NO “emotional” damages be awarded to Avery's owner. The high court's ruling upheld the view of dogs as property, and declared their value be limited solely to their economic worth. Presumably, that means literally NO value in the case of most pets, if the owner obtained them from a friend, neighbor or shelter/rescue as so many people do. Avery did not have any financial worth, and therefore, the family was unable to recover any monetary recompense for his loss.
One has to wonder about the motivation of these national organizations in aggressively supporting this ruling. There is a general consensus among members of the public that pets have a value to society above and beyond their market value. How can you put a price tag on an animal whose function is companionship? Is the mixed breed dog adopted from the shelter by a lonely senior citizen really worth less than the dog who is a champion and produces high-priced pups for the owner? The AKC says "yes". Perhaps they worry that mixed breed animals might garner monetary awards exceeding those for expensive, prizewinning purebreds? Perhaps they feel that pets really aren't all that important in the grand scheme of life? Maybe they don't believe that pets are irreplaceable companions who provide a source of comfort and joy in our otherwise mundane lives? I honestly don't understand WHAT is going through the minds of some of these folks.
Treading the line of neutral non-committalism we have the so-called "Animal Rights" groups like HSUS and PETA. Of course they can't support emotional or sentimental value for pets because they themselves kill so many of them. In fact, they actually hold seminars for shelters instructing them to kill pets swiftly and without remorse.
What are some typical scenarios that might be affected by this ruling?
A shelter wrongfully kills a pet even as they know the owner is on the way to come bail him out.
Police go to investigate at the wrong address, and kill the family dog in his own home or yard.
A veterinarian kills your 10-month-old puppy during a routine spay or dental procedure.
A pet food company includes toxic ingredients into their product, and thousands of animals die.
An animal control or animal rights agency performs an illegal raid and steals animals (which are NEVER returned, even if the person involved is eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing)
If you lose your dog as a result of one of these situations, you might not be so supportive of this court's decision. What happens when an SPCA wrongfully seizes your dogs? We have seen MANY cases where just this has happened, and usually before the owner can blink, the dogs are spayed and placed, leaving the owner with a huge emotional hole in his heart. Wendy Willard's Basset hounds were seized and some DIED during botched spay surgery done by the SPCA. No emotional distress there, was there? Cases of cruelty inflicted upon animal owners sometimes result in such severe emotional distress and despondency that suicide results. But we are led to believe that NO emotional damage occurs, or, if it does, TOO BAD SO SAD. No compensation. Why should these animal control agents restrain themselves from stealing your animals when they suffer virtually NO penalties as a result of the horrendous suffering they cause the people involved?
Let's address some of the objections of these organizations to the awarding of emotional damage in a case of negligent pet death. The AKC is worried that awarding emotional or sentimental damages might cause pets to lose their status as property. A pet's status as property would in no way be affected by a ruling for emotional damages. In fact, other types of property can merit sentimental or emotional damage awards. Grandma's quilt, an old photograph or an 'heirloom' doorstop can garner awards for their sentimental value. Is there less emotional damage to a pet owner from losing a pet than there is from losing a piece of furniture? Most pet owners, given the choice, would give up all their “heirlooms” just to keep their pet.
If dogs are even LESS valuable than inanimate possessions, as this Texas court has upheld, then why is animal cruelty any sort of criminal offense at all? Whose business is it WHAT you do with your “property”? Just sayin'.
The AVMA claims that lawsuits will drive up the costs of veterinary care for all of us. This concern, while valid, is negligible, because cases of veterinary incompetence remain relatively rare, and such cases would have to be proven in a court of law. Yet, if there IS genuine negligence, shouldn't the offender be held accountable? I say, YES. Sunlight is ALWAYS the best disinfectant for cases of medical or veterinary malpractice. Sunlight, as well as some sort of penalty to ensure that the perpetrator doesn't repeat the offense.
The hysterical claim that people will sue frivolously every time a dog is hit by a car is not credible. Anyone can sue NOW for such an event, but one would be laughed out of court with no possibility of attaining any sort of monetary compensation. In fact, courts are so fed up with frivolous lawsuits that judges who feel that a claim wastes valuable resources and time may sanction the parties involved, or even hold them in contempt of court.
This ruling is a victory only for the careless and cruel in our midst. It is a slap in the face to anyone who has suffered the emotional trauma of losing their pet under horrific circumstances. Even if there was a slight increase in litigation, does the possibility of rising costs for all offset the virtual disregard for an individual owner's pain and suffering in such cases? Monetary damages do not bring back your pet, but they DO serve as a deterrent to prevent the negligent killing of other folks' pets in the future.
In any event, it seems offensive for the very groups who claim to champion pets to trumpet their proud role in this ruling. Where is the care and concern they profess to possess? Have they genuinely NO qualms whatsoever in supporting inept animal control departments, malicious animal rights groups, unscrupulous pet food manufacturers, bumbling police, and careless veterinarians?
Perhaps it's best to concentrate on the criminal arena, where standardized penalties or fines are assessed once conviction for such egregious offenses occur. Stiff fines should be levied for shelters who kill animals without following their own protocol; or for police who shoot and kill your animal when they invade your property without a warrant or probable cause; or for veterinarians who are found to be grossly negligent by a review board of their peers upon a consumer complaint. Maybe a food company that either carelessly or intentionally poisons your pet should be fined heavily or even have their license to do business revoked, if they are not liable for the emotional trauma they cause to people who own pets.
We've seen already how government absolves itself of any liability in cases where its agencies are involved by writing exemptions in for those agencies from animal welfare statutes. Maybe it's time to start challenging such laws or lobbying to have them changed. Since courts are not going to uphold our rights as pet owners to be fairly compensated in civil court for our emotional distress, perhaps it's time to change the criminal laws to make these incompetent agencies squirm when they screw up royally.
Maybe, just maybe, they'll be a little more cautious if they have the threat of monetary penalties looming when their carelessness result in the death of someone's beloved pet.
Sorry, but I think that's a GOOD thing.