Texas Supreme Court to Rule on Whether Dog Owners can Sue for Sentimental Value

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The Medlens’ dog, Avery

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.”

Jeremy and Kathryn with Avery

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.

3 thoughts on “Texas Supreme Court to Rule on Whether Dog Owners can Sue for Sentimental Value”

  1. In the eye of the law in most states Animals are deemed property. And being property it is the owners duty to make sure this property is kept under control! There are several problems here, the dog escaped it containment and this is legally the owners fault! Therefore any litical action would be enforced on the owner not by the owner! A verbal contract is not enforceable, the second problem is the length of time the dog was on the pound! Usually 3 days is the time frame’

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  2. This is going to be the rule, if not over this case, but in some other case. Having worked in the Veterinary field many years in the past, I can truthfully say that vets can get pretty carried away on “practicing” their trade because they know if they do something wrong, oh well, I’ll only be out a few hundred dollars tops if I get sued. Litigation for wrongful death to a pet would definitely help keep vets in check so they do not venture into areas of expertise that they do not belong. Tort Litigation is what keeps people “honest”, and this is so needed in the veterinary field. Needed in a bad way. And not just vets. Their have been many, many cases of law enforcement killing dogs for merely being in their yard. The cases are too many to even count.

    So all in all I see this as a positive thing. And if people push the envelope too far, they’ll lose their case. That is why we have the type of judicial system we have.

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  3. I think in the initial reports the family tried to pick up their dog within the time frame but it was 15 min or so before close. But besides an unfortunate event of Avery getting out I am a little too familiar with the callousness that some kill shelter employees act. 🙁 the problem is she didn’t follow direction or pay attention, one of the two. That is not doing your job & it caused a family member it’s life. If you have the power to make a life or death decision in your job description then you have to be careful. Anonymous I completely agree with the tort & vets. It’s sad but true, a good honest not completely money hungry vet is worth their weight in gold.

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