The Texas Supreme Court will weigh in on a case to determine whether pet owners can claim damages for the sentimental value rather than the market value of their animals.
Last week, the state's highest civil court agreed to hear oral arguments after a former Fort Worth animal shelter employee appealed a landmark ruling out of the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth that said owners can claim sentimental value for their deceased pets, overturning a 120-year-old state Supreme Court decision stating that a person can only sue for the market value of a pet.
The case is being watched by animal advocates, pet product manufacturers and veterinary groups, said Randy Turner, an attorney who is representing a Fort Worth family who sued the animal shelter employee after their dog, an 8-year-old Labrador mix named Avery, was mistakenly euthanized three years ago.
"Veterinarians are terrified of this case. They think it's going to result in huge jury verdicts and skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums," Turner said.
John Cayce, an attorney and retired chief justice of the Fort Worth appeals court who is representing the former animal shelter employee, Carla Strickland, in her appeal, said pet owners can already sue for reasonable damages if their animal is killed accidentally.
"The lower court ruling expands the law for pet owners to recover unlimited emotional damages, which is more than someone can recover for a parent or grandparent," Cayce said.
Cayce said the Fort Worth appeals court ruling would also have a "devastating" effect on the economy, forcing veterinarians to pay more for malpractice insurance and pet owners to pay more for vet visits.
Although dogs are beloved companions, Cayce wrote, "They should not be placed into this intimate familiar category as a matter of public policy."
Because cities are generally immune from lawsuits, the former shelter employee was sued. However, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that government employees can also claim immunity in most cases.
Turner said Texans can sue for sentimental value on property from photos to their grandmother's wedding veil, and that it does not make sense to exclude pets.
"A pet is the most sentimental piece of property you own," he said. "You can recover the sentimental value of the photo of your dog, but not the dog," Turner said.
The debate over whether a the loss of a pet falls under sentimental value began when Avery escaped from Kathryn and Jeremy Medlens' back yard during a thunderstorm.
The next day, Jeremy Medlen went to the animal shelter to get his dog, but found out he had to pay $80 in order for the shelter to release Avery. Medlen didn't have the cash on hand but was told he could come back to claim Avery.
He returned to the shelter the next day, but matters were complicated even more when he learned that a veterinarian would have to implant a microchip in Avery's ear.
A "hold for the owner" sign was placed on the dog's cage to prevent the dog from being put down.
But when Medlen returned to the shelter with money to claim Avery, he learned that his pet had been euthanized by mistake.
The Medlens could not be reached for comment.
Initially, their lawsuit was dismissed in a Tarrant County civil district court because the family sued for the sentimental value and not the market value of their dog, but the Medlens appealed, and the Fort Worth appeals court issued its ruling in favor of the family.
"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners," the appeals court ruling stated. "We interpret timeworn Supreme Court law to acknowledge that the special value of man's best friend should be protected."