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It's a Dog's Life: Texas Court Considers Pets' Sentimental Value

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

Can you put a price tag on man’s best friend?

The Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday morning in a case that could answer that question.  An animal shelter employee is appealing a lower court’s ruling that found her accidental euthanasia of a family dog gave the pet’s owners grounds to recover damages related to the dog’s “sentimental or intrinsic value.”

The appeal from Fort Worth shelter employee Carla Strickland describes what happened: In 2009, Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s dog Avery escaped from their backyard and was picked up by animal services.  The Medlens found the dog at the shelter, but didn’t have the money to take Avery out, so an agreement was made that they would come back for the dog in a week.

A few days later, Strickland made a list of animals to be euthanized – and added Avery to that list by accident. “When the Medlens returned for their dog a few days later,” the appeal reads, “they learned of his unfortunate fate.”

The Medlens sued Strickland, and the case was appealed; the Austin American-Statesman has an overview of the court activity. At appeals court, the Medlens argued that while personal property – in this case, their dog – may have little market value, they were due damages due to the “intrinsic or sentimental value.” The court sided with the Medlens, before Strickland appealed the case to the state’s high court.

“The issue before the Texas Supreme Court is how much in damages a person in Texas can recover when someone loses, kills or injures their pet,” says Ryan Clinton, an Austin animal rights advocate and attorney who filed a brief in support of the Medlens.

“The other side,” Clinton says, “they’re all arguing that the most someone should ever be able to recover, if someone kills their pet, is the actual market value replacement costs. So if you got you pet for free from a shelter, they’re saying hat your pet is worth absolutely nothing."

Strickland’s appeal says the lower court’s ruling puts the state on a slippery slope: “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,” it says. “Although dogs are beloved companions, they should not be placed into this intimate familial category as a matter of public policy.  To do so would allow damage claims with no sensible or just stopping point, ultimately affecting the quality and costs of pet services to the detriment of pets and their owners, as well as other business interests in the state.”

The Associated Press cites an even more pointed argumentfrom Strickland’s attorneys: "there is an endless supply of dogs that can serve the same purpose."

But Clinton doesn’t buy that argument, saying that plenty of other states have found ways for pet owners to recover damages – “whether its sentimental value damages, whether its punitive damages, whether its emotional distress damages.”

Oral arguments concluded Thursday; there’s no word yet on when the court may issue an opinion.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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