Texas Supreme Court to Rule on Whether Dog Owners can Sue for Sentimental Value
The Texas Supreme Court will soon be ruling on whether or not a family can sue for sentimental value on a dog that has been killed accidentally. This comes after a Fort Worth animal shelter “mistakenly” euthanized a runaway dog in 2009.
About three years ago, Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s dog, Avery, escaped from their yard during a thunderstorm. He was picked up by Fort Worth Animal Control, and the Medlens were called in to collect him.
“When Jeremy and his two small children went to go pick up Avery, they were told they accidentally killed him the day before,” said Medlen’s attorney, Randy Turner.
Avery’s cage had been labeled “hold for owner,” meaning not to put down, but one of the workers euthanized him anyway.
“She went through and picked the dogs that needed to be euthanized and accidentally picked Avery,” Turner said.
The Medlens then hired Turner, who took the case pro bono, to sue worker Carla Strickland for negligence and the accidental euthanasia of their beloved pet. Though Strickland claims it was done mistakenly, the fact that the cage was clearly labeled “hold for owner” gives one pause to think.
“Ms. Strickland, from day one, has been devastated by the unfortunate accident that occurred that led to Avery’s death,” said John Cayce, her attorney.
According to Turner, the Medlens “wanted to know if there’s anything they could [do to] stop this from happening to anyone else.”
Avery is essentially worthless, as far as market value goes. Had he been a show dog, of course there could have been compensation, because show dogs and rare purebreds are “worth” more than other dogs. But not to the Medlens.
Dogs are already considered property in Texas – if a dog is stolen, that is considered theft of property and the perpetrator will be jailed. In 1963, Texas adopted a “sentimental value rule,” which stated that if property is wrongfully destroyed and the property had no market value, the parties involved could sue.
“Problem is, they never applied sentimental value to dogs,” Turner said. “You can sue and recover the sentimental value of a photograph, but not the dog itself. We’re asking dogs to be treated like all other property.”
So had Strickland destroyed a painting of Avery, the Medlens would have been compensated. The case was initially dismissed after a judge ruled that the family could not claim damages for their dog’s companionship. However, an appeals court ruled in favor of the Medlens, and the case has moved on to the Texas Supreme Court.
Justice Don Willett posed this scenario to Turner: suppose a twin sister is walking a dog down the street, and both are killed by a distracted driver. By law, damages for mental anguish can be collected only for the death of a parent, spouse or child. “So wouldn’t it be strange,” Willett asked, “for the surviving sister to collect money for the dog, but not her twin?”
“It might seem strange. But not really,” Turner responded. “Let’s change the hypothetical and say that instead of walking her dog, she’s carrying a family heirloom. And there’s a collision, the sister is killed, and also the cherished family heirloom is destroyed. Well, under existing Texas law handed down by this court, there is no dispute she couldn’t recover a wrongful death case for (her) sister, but she could for the sentimental value of the heirloom. That would be a strange result, but that’s the law.”
“Where do we draw the line?” Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd asked. “Cats? Fish? Birds?”
But having law-enforced sentimental value placed on animals could affect other pet owners.
“This case really goes beyond the dispute between Strickland and the Medlens,” said Cayce. “It would have an adverse impact on just the average citizen in the state that might accidentally run over a dog on the way to work. With that kind of liability, the insurance rates would go up.”
He also speculated that veterinarians’ insurance premiums would skyrocket based on a fear of being sued over wrongful deaths.
The Medlens aren’t going after a monetary award in this case, however. They just want to know that Avery did not die in vain.
“We’re simply asking the court to recognize the value society places on animals, now,” they said.
The court will make a ruling sometime between the next few weeks or months.