Court Allows Recovery for Sentimental Value of Dog

By Daniel P. Sullivan, Esq.

They say that every dog has his day, and that day may have come for our furry friends based upon a recent decision out of the Fort Worth Court of Appeals. Since the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Heiligmann v. Rose, decided in 1891, Texas courts have routinely held that damages for the loss of a dog are limited to the animal’s market value or a special value based on its usefulness or services. What this has meant is that unless your dog provided “special services,” such as a guard dog or guide dog might, recovery for the negligent injury or death of your canine friend was simply the cost to replace him. But a group of forward-thinking justices out of Fort Worth’s own Second District Court of Appeals, recognizing the outdated nature of this attitude, have held that the sentimental value of your dog may, indeed, now be an element of recovery.

In Medlen v. Strickland, 353 S.W.3d 576 (Tex.App.—Fort Worth 2011), an owner’s dog escaped from his yard and was seized by animal control. The owner went to the animal shelter and identified his dog, but did not then have the money to pay for its release. He was told that a “hold for owner” tag would be placed on the animal’s cage and that they would keep the dog until he had the funds to pay the associated fine. Though the “hold for owner” tag was, indeed, placed on the dog’s cage, the dog was listed to be euthanized and was put to sleep shortly thereafter. The owner sued, seeking recovery of the sentimental value of his lost pet. The trial court, however, dismissed the case, holding that under Heiligmann v. Rose there could be no recovery for a dog’s sentimental value. On appeal, however, the court focused squarely on the changes to both the law and society in the century since Heiligmann, holding therefore that the time was right to recognize the true value of “man’s best friend” :

  • Texas law has changed greatly since 1891. Heiligmann was decided at a time when Texas law did not allow recovery for the sentimental value of any personal property. In that way, Heiligmann was ahead of its time by noting that the dogs “were of special value to the owner.” As we noted above, sentimental damages may now be recovered for the loss or destruction of all types of personal property. Because of the special position pets hold in their family, we see no reason why existing law should not be interpreted to allow recovery in the loss of a pet at least to the same extent as any other personal property. Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners. Today, we interpret timeworn supreme court law in light of subsequent supreme court law to acknowledge that the special value of “man’s best friend” should be protected.

Medlen, 353 S.W.3d at 580-581.

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