Texas Supreme Court to consider emotional value of pets

How much is a dog’s love worth? Can you put a dollar value on man’s best friend?

The Medlen family and their dog Avery; the pooch was accidentally euthanized in 2009. (Photo credit: Medlen Family)

Those are exactly the kinds of questions the Texas Supreme Court has been asked to consider after the wrongful death of a family’s beloved canine companion.

In 2009, Avery, a Fort Worth family’s mixed breed dog, was spooked during a thunderstorm and escaped the backyard.

Avery’s owners, Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen, searched everywhere for their missing dog, and were thrilled when, days later, they received a phone call from Fort Worth Animal Control letting the family know their dog had been found.

But when the Medlens arrived at the shelter to claim Avery, they received some devastating news, says attorney Randy Turner.

“When Jeremy and his two small children went to go pick up Avery, they were told they accidentally killed him the day before,” Turner told ABC News.

Though Avery’s cage had been labeled “hold for owner,” indicating that his family would be there shortly to take him home, one staff member mistakenly euthanized the Medlen family’s sweet pup.

“She went through and picked the dogs that needed to be euthanized and accidentally picked Avery,” Turner explained.

Heartbroken, the Medlens decided to pursue legal redress, suing Carla Strickland, the shelter employee who’d made the fatal mistake that took Avery’s life. Turner explained that the family “wanted to know if there’s anything they could [do to] stop this from happening to anyone else.”

Under current state law, Texas dogs are considered property. Dognappers face charges of theft if they steal someone’s pet. Owners of dogs carrying high market value, such as expensive pedigree show dogs, can seek damages for the monetary value of their pet in the event of that pet’s death.

A “sentimental value rule” adopted in 1963 states that a property owner can sue if their property is wrongly destroyed.

“Problem is, they never applied sentimental value to dogs,” said Turner.

Though Texans are able to sue for emotional damages after the loss of other kinds of irreplaceable property, such as family heirlooms, dogs are not afforded the same status as the antique furniture, jewelry, and family photographs passed down from grandma.

“You can sue and recover the sentimental value of a photograph [of a dog], but not the dog itself,” Turner explained.

But the Medlen family is hoping to change that. Last Thursday the Medlens’ case was brought before the Texas Supreme Court.

“We are just asking the court to treat dogs like it treats other property in this state,” Turner said.

While many animal rights advocates are supporting a change in the law that would allow owners to sue for the sentimental value of their wrongfully killed pets, the case is also drawing a lot of opposition.

According to the Wall Street Journal, groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Cat Fanciers’ Association worry that a ruling in the Medlens’ favor would cause the cost of veterinary care, dog-walking, grooming, and other pet-related services to go through the roof because of the then financial risks involved in caring for a pet with high sentimental value.

One official wondered what other pets would then have sentimental value in the eyes of the law if the court were to give dogs that distinction.

“Where do we draw the line?” asked Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd. “Cats? Fish? Birds?”

Only time will tell; the Texas Supreme Court is not set to provide a final ruling on the matter for at least the next several weeks.

Sources: ABC News, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, TexasWatchDog.org