June 27, 2012
By Mark Curriden
For years, courts have widely accepted that photographs of pets and their owners have "sentimental value." but those same courts refuse to recognize that the pets themselves have anything more than market value in damage lawsuits.
The Texas Supreme Court is reviewing a case that animal law experts say could be a landmark that could guide courts around the country.
The case began two years ago when an 8-year-old Labrador named Avery ran away from his Fort Worth home during a thunderstorm. He was promptly picked up by the city's animal control and placed in the animal shelter.
The next day, Avery's owners, Jeremy Medlen and his kids, located Avery, but they didn't have the cash to bond him out. The shelter agreed to hold him a couple days. However, Avery was placed on the list of animals to be euthanized.
The Medlens sued, seeking damages for "sentimental or intrinsic value." A Tarrant County Court trial judge dismissed the case, pointing to a 120-year-old Texas Supreme Court decision that pet owners could receive only the market value of the pet.
Undaunted, the Medlens appealed and, last November, received a favorable decision by the Texas Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.
"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners," according to the ruling. "We interpret timeworn supreme court law ... to acknowledge that the special value of ‘man's best friend' should be protected. 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 at least to the same extent as any other personal property." Lawyers for the Medlens say this decision means that animal shelters, veterinarians and pet groomers have a "legal incentive" to be more careful with people's pets.
Lawyer Yolanda Eisenstein, who teaches animal law at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law in Dallas, says the decision gives pet owners rights they have long deserved. But it also raises reasonable concerns from veterinarians and dog kennels.
In their appeal to the state supreme court, lawyers for the animal shelter say that the Texas legislature, not the courts, should address this issue. "This sweeping change in animal law gives pet owners the potential for a greater damages recovery for the loss of their pets than is available for the loss of a relative or close human friend," states the appeal. "Although dogs are beloved companions, they should not be placed into this intimate familial category as a matter of public policy."