Three years ago, Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen's dog, Avery, escaped from their Fort Worth home during a thunderstorm. They learned a few days later from Fort Worth Animal Control that Avery had been found safe and was in the custody of the city shelter. But by the time the family arrived to claim their pet, it had already been euthanized by shelter worker Carla Strickland, who had apparently ignored the "hold for owner" sign on the cage.
The Medlen's sued, claiming negligence and seeking damages under the "sentimental value rule" a state law passed in 1963 that allows parties to sue when a piece of property that otherwise has no monetary value is destroyed.
"Problem is, they never applied sentimental value to dogs," the Medlen's attorney, Randy Turner told ABC News. "You can sue and recover the sentimental value of a photograph, but not the dog itself."
That led a judge to dismiss the case, but the Medlens won on appeal. Yesterday, the Texas Supreme Court took up the case. According to the Associated Press, justices "appeared skeptical."
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"Where do we draw the line?" Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd asked from the bench. "Cats? Fish? Birds?"
The AP story continues:
From the start, justices of the nine-member panel peppered Turner with questions and wild hypotheticals, resulting in stifled laughs from the courtroom gallery more than once.
Justice Don Willett asked where a stuffed dog might fall under this new standard.
He later painted a difference scenario: a twin sister walking a dog down the street when both are run over by a distracted driver barreling around the curve while texting. Under the law, damages for mental anguish can be collected only for the death of a parent, spouse or child. So wouldn't it be strange, Willett asked, for the surviving sister to collect money for the dog, but not her twin?
"It might seem strange. But not really," Turner responded. "Let's change the hypothetical and say that instead of walking her dog, she's carrying a family heirloom. And there's a collision, the sister is killed, and also the cherished family heirloom is destroyed. Well, under existing Texas law handed down by this court, there is no dispute she couldn't recover a wrongful death case for (her) sister, but she could for the sentimental value of the heirloom. That would be a strange result, but that's the law."
The Supreme Court isn't expected to rule for several weeks. Whatever the decision, the Star-Telegram is right when it suggests that such instances can be more fully addressed by lawmakers.