Court to Decide if Dogs Have Sentimental Value under the Law

American-Statesman Staff

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 long-lasting 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 6-year-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 more than three years later.

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.

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