During a thunderstorm in June 2009, Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s eight-year-old Lab mix, Avery, escaped from their backyard in Fort Worth, Texas. The Medlens searched frantically and were relieved to discover that Avery had been picked up by animal control. But when Jeremy went to retrieve the dog at the city’s shelter, he didn’t have the $95 needed to cover the fees. A “hold for owner” tag was hung on Avery’s cage. The next day, when the Medlens and their young children arrived at the shelter with the cash, they were met with devastating news: Avery had been mistakenly euthanized.
On December 30, 2009, the Medlens filed a lawsuit against Carla Strickland, the city employee who put Avery down. In Texas, if a person’s property is wrongfully destroyed by another person, the owner can sue for “market value.” If the property has little or no market value but has sentimental value, a jury can award the owner the amount it decides would be a reasonable compensation. Over the years, Texas courts have assigned “sentimental value” to anything from a grandmother’s wedding veil to a pistol holster-but never to pets.
“Dogs are the most sentimental piece of property we have,” says Randy Turner, the Medlens’ attorney. “Our suit asked the court to apply the ‘sentimental value’ rule to dogs.” However, the trial court judge dismissed the case, following a Texas Supreme Court decision from 1891, which held that the owner of a dog that was wrongfully killed can sue only for monetary value.
The Medlens appealed, arguing that “society’s attitude toward dogs has completely changed since 1891.” Strickland’s attorneys countered, pointing to Supreme Court decisions that held that sentimental value was recoverable only for heirlooms. “According to Strickland’s position,” wrote appeals court justice Lee Gabriel, “damages could be awarded for a sentimental photograph of a family and its dog but not for the dog itself.” On November 3, 2011, Gabriel ruled in the Medlens’ favor and reversed the trial court’s judgment, noting the “companionship” dogs provide.
Strickland filed a petition on January 17, 2012, asking the Texas Supreme Court to review the case. The court agreed to hear it.
Do the Medlens deserve compensation for Avery’s untimely death? You be the judge.
On January 10, 2013, Strickland’s attorney, John Cayce, argued that, while most states allow a person to recover sentimental damages for the loss of a parent, spouse, or child, they do not award damages for the loss of, say, an aunt or a grandparent. “If the Texas Supreme Court affirms the opinion of the appeals court,” he explained, “a dog owner would then be able to recover more for a loss of a pet than American law allows for [the loss of] most human family members.”
Turner, the Medlens’ attorney, argued that “it would make no sense to allow sentimental value damages for all types of property except the one that people attach the most sentimental value to.” In the end, the Supreme Court sided with Strickland and reversed the appeals court’s judgment. “We acknowledge the grief of those whose companions were negligently killed,” wrote Justice Don Willett. “Relational attachment is unquestionable. But it is also uncompensable.”