In an opinion delivered by Justice Gabriel on November 3, 2011 inthe case of Medlen v. Strickland, the Second Court of Appeals of Texas, Fort Worth, reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s suit against Carla Strickland for the death of their dog. In what can only be considered a landmark decision, the Second Court of Appeals remanded the Medlens’ case, thereby granting the Medlens the right to sue for the “sentimental or intrinsic value” of their wrongfully euthanized dog, Avery.
Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s history with their dog Avery began when Kathryn adopted Avery from a homeless man. The facts of this specific case, however, begin when Avery escaped from the Medlens’ backyard during a thunderstorm on or around June 2, 2009. Avery was soon thereafter picked up by animal control. Jeremy Medlen went to the animal shelter, Fort Worth Animal Care and Control, to recover Avery but did not have enough money with him to cover the fee in its entirety. Jeremy was informed that he could return to retrieve Avery on June 10th, and a “hold for owner” tag was placed on Avery’s cage, which was intended to protect Avery from being euthanized. On June 6th, Carla Strickland, an employee at the shelter placed Avery on a “to be euthanized” list for the following day, despite the label on Avery’s designated cage. On June 7th Avery was euthanized. When the Medlen family returned a few days later to get Avery, they were told he was put down.
The Medlens brought suit against Strickland, asserting that the employee’s negligence proximately caused Avery’s death. The Medlens specifically sued for Avery’s “’sentimental or intrinsic value’ because he had little or no market value and was irreplaceable.” In an amended complaint, pursuant to the trial judge’s order to “state a claim for damages recognized at law,” the Medlens re-affirmed their grounds for damages in Avery’s “intrinsic value.” Carla Strickland excepted; the trial judge agreed and dismissed the suit; and the Medlens appealed.
The issue of this case on appeal is whether a party can recover “intrinsic or sentimental” damages for the loss of a dog. The Second Court of Appeals of Texas reviewed de novo, or rather afresh, and with what could only be the powerful persuasion of the Medlens attorney, agreed with the 1963 Texas Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Frontier Theatres, Inc. That ruling found that damages can still be awarded based on the “intrinsic or sentimental value” of destroyed personal property, even if that personal property that has little or no market value. Grounding his argument in the firmly rooted concept that pets are designated as property, the Medlens’ attorney Randy Turner, utilized this “loophole” holding to his clients’ advantage. This “loophole” went so far as to get the court to reject the 120-year-old precedent of the 1891 Texas Supreme Court case, Heiligmann v. Rose, which constrained dog owners to damages based strictly in the market value of their dog, in cases such as these. In issuing the court’s opinion, Justice Lee Gabriel wrote, “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.” Justice Gabriel also noted, as joined by Justices Sue Walker and Bill Meier, “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 other personal property.”
While this story brings hope to animal lovers alike, veterinarians are displeased. Both the American and Texas Veterinary Medicine Associations have plans to appeal this ruling. Strickland’s counsel commented that this decision will create new causes of actions against vets.