How much is your pet worth?
Court to decide after dog wrongly put down.
The Texas Supreme Court will decide whether the owners of a dog accidentally euthanized by the Fort Worth pound can sue for the sentimental value of the family pet or merely for the replacement value of the mixed-breed animal.
The answer could have longlasting implications for pet ownership in Texas, leading to divided loyalties among a long list of animal lovers who have weighed in on the legal battle.
The case began as a lawsuit filed by Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen, whose 6year-old dog Avery escaped from their backyard during a 2009 thunderstorm. Jeremy Medlen found his dog at the city animal shelter but didn’t have enough money to pay
the required fee, though employees assured him that a “hold for owner” tag on Avery’s cage would protect the dog from euthanasia for up to one week.
Four days later, however, Avery was dead.
The Medlens sued Carla Strickland, the shelter worker who had mistakenly placed Avery on the euthanasia list, alleging that her negligence caused the pet’s death. Arguing that the dog was irreplaceable yet had little market value, the Medlens sought to recover an unspecified award based on Avery’s sentimental value — kicking off a legal fracas that continues.
State District Judge Donald Pierson eventually dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that an 1891 Texas Supreme Court decision allows owners to sue only for the market value of a dead dog or, at best, a special value based on “the usefulness and services of the dog.”
The Fort Worth appeals court reinstated the Medlens’ lawsuit last year, ruling that more recent Supreme Court decisions established “that the special value of ‘man’s best friend’ should be protected.”
“Sentimental damages may now be recovered for the loss or destruction of all types of personal property,” the appeals court ruled. “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.”
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to determine how “companion pets” should be treated by the law. Oral arguments will be heard Jan. 10, with a ruling to follow sometime later.
Avery’s case has gained interest from animalfriendly organizations, with most opposing the Medlens’ quest as harmful to pets.
A brief from the American Kennel Club, Cat Fanciers’ Association and five similar nonprofit groups argues that recognizing emotion-based damages would increase liability for veterinarians, shelter employees and animal- rescue workers who could be sued if a pet is injured in their care.
“If tens of thousands of dollars are at stake every time a pet is injured or killed, pet litigation will become a cottage industry,” the brief said. “Litigation would arise when pets are injured in car accidents, police actions, veterinary visits, shelter incidents, protection of livestock and pet-on-pet aggression, to name a few.”
The Texas Veterinary Medical Association said it feared its members would be forced to prac- tice defensive medicine, ordering extra tests and therapies to limit their legal liability. The result would be higher prices and fewer pets treated as owners seek to cuts costs, the group said in a brief.
Strickland’s lawyers warned the Texas Supreme Court of a “litigation tsunami” if it favors the Medlens, arguing that it would put pet owners on an equal footing with those who lose a spouse, parent or child.
“The court of appeals’ decision effectively creates a new and independent cause of action — loss of companionship for the wrongful death of an animal,” Strickland’s brief said.
The Medlens’ lawyer — joined by 11 Texas law professors and the Texas Dog Commission, which lobbies on behalf of canines — told the court that fears raised by Strickland and other organizations were overblown.
“This case has nothing to do with mental anguish damages. This case does not create a new cause of action in Texas for ‘loss of companionship’ after the death of a pet,” said a brief by lawyer Randall Turner.
Instead, Turner wrote, a Medlen victory would follow prior Supreme Court rulings that allowed people to recover the sentimental value of damaged property that has little or no market value — including dogs, which are considered property under the law.
In a brief supporting the Medlens, the law professors agreed, noting that Texas courts have recognized since 1963 that the primary value of irreplaceable property can include the sentimental value held by the owner.
Turner took the argument one step further, raising the example of a beloved pet killed through another person’s negligence. If Strickland’s view of property prevails in court, he argued, the owner could not sue for the sentimental value of the dog — unless its taxidermied body was destroyed years later.
“What reasonable application of the law allows a suit for damages for the loss of inanimate personal property but not the destruction of the same property while it is alive?” Turner said in a brief.
The case is Strickland v. Medlen, 12-0047. they can’t do a comprehensive package of smart deficit reductions, let’s at minimum make sure that people’s taxes don’t go up and that 2 million people don’t lose their unemployment insurance.
“And I was modestly optimistic yesterday, but we don’t yet see an agreement,” Obama said. “And now the pressure’s on Congress to produce.”
Unless Congress acts by midnight today, a broad set of tax increases and federal spending cuts will be automatically imposed on Jan. 1, affecting virtually every taxpayer and government program.
Pound put down Avery after owner was told dog would be held for him.
Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen sued Carla Strickland, the shelter worker who mistakenly placed Avery on the euthanasia list in 2009. The Texas Supreme Court will determine how ‘companion pets’ should be treated by the law.