I want to update you all regarding developments on two topics we’ve talked about in the past.

First, horse slaughter. It looks like a facility in New Mexico will soon be open again. USDA inspectors have recently reinspected the plant, and in an interview with ABC news, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said "It will open unless Congress restores the ban on horse slaughter that they had in place. If that doesn't happen, then we are duty-bound to do what needs to be done to allow that plant to begin processing."

I won’t rehash the arguments for and against the slaughter of horses for meat (take a look at this post if you need some background). The federal budget that President Obama has proposed eliminates funding for the inspection of horse slaughter facilities, which would once again prevent the practice, but who knows whether that item will survive the negotiations process.

Next up, the legal definition of pets as property. About a year ago, we talked about a potentially ground-breaking case decided by the Texas Second District Court of Appeals that allowed owners to sue for their dog’s sentimental value. The case then went before the Texas Supreme Court. The justices delivered their opinion on April 5. Here’s an excerpt from the decision:

Texans love their dogs. Throughout the Lone Star State, canine companions are treated—and treasured—not as mere personal property but as beloved friends and confidants, even family members. Given the richness that companion animals add to our everyday lives, losing “man’s best friend” is undoubtedly sorrowful. Even the gruffest among us tears up (every time) at the end of Old Yeller.2

This case concerns the types of damages available for the loss of a family pet. If a cherished dog is negligently killed, can a dollar value be placed on a heartsick owner’s heartfelt affection? More pointedly, may a bereaved dog owner recover emotion-based damages for the loss? In 1891, we effectively said no, announcing a “true rule” that categorized dogs as personal property, 3 thus disallowing non-economic damages. In 2011, however, a court of appeals said yes, 4 effectively creating a novel—and expansive—tort claim: loss of companionship for the wrongful death of a pet.

In today’s case, involving a family dog that was accidentally euthanized, we must decide whether to adhere to our restrictive, 122-year-old precedent classifying pets as property for tort-law purposes, or to instead recognize a new common-law loss-of-companionship claim that allows noneconomic damages rooted solely in emotional attachment, a remedy the common law has denied those who suffer the wrongful death of a spouse, parent, or child, 5 and is available in Texas only by statute. 6

We acknowledge the grief of those whose companions are negligently killed. Relational attachment is unquestionable. But it is also uncompensable. We reaffirm our long-settled rule, which tracks the overwhelming weight of authority nationally, plus the bulk of amicus curiae briefs from several pet-welfare organizations (who understand the deep emotional bonds between people and their animals): Pets are property in the eyes of the law, and we decline to permit non-economic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings. True, a beloved companion dog is not a fungible, inanimate object like, say, a toaster. The term “property” is not a pejorative but a legal descriptor, and its use should not be misconstrued as discounting the emotional attachment that pet owners undeniably feel. Nevertheless, under established legal doctrine, recovery in pet-death cases is, barring legislative reclassification, limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship. We reverse the court of appeals’ judgment and render judgment in favor of the Petitioner.

_________________

2. OLD YELLER (Walt Disney 1957).

3. Heiligmann v. Rose, 16 S.W. 931, 932 (Tex. 1891).

4. 353 S.W.3d 576, 581.

5. See Russell v. Ingersoll-Rand Co., 841 S.W.2d 343, 345 (Tex. 1992) (“common law rule” was that “no cause of action [could] be brought for the death of another person”).

6. TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 71.002.

What do you think of these developments?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Inger Anne Hulbækdal / via Shutterstock