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Texas Weighs Sentiment in Pet Death Damages

FORT WORTH (CN) - The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear a closely watched case over whether dog owners can sue for sentimental value rather than market value of a dead pet.

The court agreed to hear the case after defendant Carla Strickland, a former Fort Worth animal shelter employee, appealed a November ruling by the state's 2nd Court of Appeals that allowed plaintiffs Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen to pursue negligence claims against her.

According to court filings, their 8-year-old Labrador mix, Avery, escaped from the Medlens' back yard and was picked up by the city's animal control.

Jeremy Medlen went to the shelter to bail out Avery, but did not have enough cash in hand to pay the fees. He was told he could return the next day and that a hold-for-owner tag would be placed on Avery's cage, to prevent him from being euthanized. But Avery was killed the next day before the Medlens could pick him up.

The Medlens sued for "sentimental or intrinsic" damages; Strickland objected, saying such damages are not recoverable for the death of a dog.

The First Tarrant County Court at Law then dismissed the suit for failure to state a claim for damages recognized by law. The court said the Medlens could recover only the market value of the dog, in line with a 120-year-old Texas Supreme Court ruling, Heiligmann v. Rose, 81 Tex. 222, 16 S.W. 931 (Tex. 1891).

The Medlens appealed to the 2nd Court, which reversed and concluded that although the state's highest court had not dealt directly with the value of a lost pet since that ruling, "it has explicitly held that where personal property has little or no market value, and its main value is in sentiment, damages may be awarded based on this intrinsic or sentimental value."

"Because an owner may be awarded damages based on the sentimental value of lost personal property, and because dogs are personal property, the trial court erred in dismissing the Medlens' action against Strickland," the court wrote.

The Medlens' attorney Randy Turner told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after the 2nd Court's ruling this is the first time in Texas that someone can sue for a pet's sentimental value.

"No matter how attached they were to their pet, and no matter how devastated they were by its death ... they (had been) only entitled to the 'market value' of the animal," Turner told the Star-Telegram.

Strickland's attorney, Paul Boudloche, told Texas Lawyer that "our position is the law has been settled for 120 years not only by the Supreme Court but by the court of appeals. And the decision by the 2nd Court took us totally by surprise."

"I think it's going to have a significant impact on the private sector, particularly veterinarians, kennel owners, even individuals who take care of their neighbors' pets. I mean, for example, on veterinarians, things which would be routine care for a pet, now they have to practice much more defensive medicine," Boudloche said. "[T]he value of a dog has changed in the eye of the law. So, if mistakes happen, the exposure for everybody is much greater."Oral arguments are scheduled for January 10.

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