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Fort Worth, TX court says pets worth more than market value

FORT WORTH -- Avery was part of the family.

The 8-year-old Labrador mixed breed loved to sleep on the couch, swim in lakes and rivers, and pretty much go everywhere possible with his family, Jeremy and Katherine Medlen and their children.

But two years ago, spooked by a late-night thunderstorm, Avery escaped from his family's back yard in Fort Worth and was picked up by the city's animal control.

The Medlens found him at the shelter the next day, but through a series of slip-ups and errors -- from not having enough cash on hand to pick him up that day to having to wait until the vet could install a microchip in Avery's ear -- their dog was added to the euthanasia list and put to sleep.

"It was a horrible time for us," said Katherine Medlen, who got Avery years ago from a homeless man giving away puppies. "I've never lost a family member or a pet before."

They took their case to court, saying they hoped to prevent something like this from happening to anyone else's pet, and landed a groundbreaking court ruling this month.

A state appeals court in Fort Worth ruled for the first time that a pet's value is greater than its price tag.

It has sentimental value as well.

"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners," says the ruling from the Texas 2nd Court of Appeals. "We interpret timeworn Supreme Court law ... to acknowledge that the special value of 'man's best friend' should be protected."

Some worry that this ruling, which may be appealed, could affect veterinarians, kennels and dog sitters statewide by opening the door for pet owners to sue them for sentimental value rather than market value if something happens to their dog.

'Hold for owner'

On a June night in 2009, Avery got out of the Medlens' back yard.

The next day, Jeremy Medlen tracked Avery down at the Fort Worth animal shelter. Jeremy Medlen didn't have enough cash on him to pay the fees, but workers there said he could come back for Avery on another day and they would put a "hold for owner" tag on his cage to make sure he wasn't euthanized, court records show.

Jeremy Medlen said he went back the next day but was told the shelter couldn't release Avery until the veterinarian, who was out for a couple of days, could implant a microchip in his ear.

Finally, on the day shelter workers had said they could send Avery home, Jeremy Medlen showed up with his children to pay the fines and fees and pick up his dog.

"I went in early and they looked for him all over the facility, in the males and the females sections," Jeremy Medlen said.

He was nowhere to be found.

Finally, employees showed Medlen a picture of a dog that had been euthanized that they thought might be Avery. Apparently an employee had made a list of animals to be euthanized and included Avery, despite the "hold for owner" tag, on the list, court records show.

Stunned, Medlen called his wife to tell her what happened.

"When he called me, I thought he had been in an accident or one of our human children were killed," Katherine Medlen said. "He could barely get the words out."

'Special value'

In the days that followed, the Medlens said, shelter workers tried to make it up to the couple.

They offered to give them another dog. They offered to pay Avery's burial fees. They offered some cash and another dog.

Eventually, the Medlens sued the worker believed to have put Avery on the euthanasia list, saying her negligence led to his death. They asked for "sentimental or intrinsic value" because Avery had little market value "and was irreplaceable," according to court records. Their lawsuit did not specify the amount of damages.

Past court rulings said an animal's market value was essentially the only amount that could be recovered; a Tarrant County judge had already dismissed the lawsuit because the Medlens were suing for sentimental value.

The Medlens appealed the dismissal.

After the suit had been in the legal system 11/2 years, a panel of the 2nd Second Court of Appeals ruled for the Medlens this month, saying the "special value" of pets should be preserved.

"It is the first time in Texas history that an appeals court has allowed a dog owner to recover sentimental-value damages for the death of a dog," said Randy Turner, the Fort Worth attorney who represents the Medlens. "This is a huge deal for pet owners. Up until the Medlen case, if a person came to see me wanting to sue someone for killing their dog, I had to tell them it was not worth it.

"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," said Turner, who is handling the case for no payment. "Now a jury can at least put a sentimental value on an animal that is otherwise worthless in terms of what it could have sold for on the open market."

A new precedent

"We certainly disagree with the court's decision," said Jason Lamers, a spokesman for Fort Worth, which runs the Chuck Silcox Animal Care and Control Center. "What happened in [this] case was beyond unfortunate, but we remain focused on preventing this from happening again and saving as many pets as possible regardless of any court-imposed value."

Fort Worth attorney Paul Boudloche, who represented the former shelter worker, said he was "shocked and surprised" that the justices overturned law in place for more than 100 years.

"This has a significant impact, economic impact, particularly for veterinarians who may end up having to practice defensive medicine, increasing the cost for everybody taking their pets to a vet," he said. "Kennel owners will have more exposure, even neighbors who take care of one of their neighbor's pets while someone is on vacation.

"What if you end up leaving the gate open while they are gone? Suddenly you are open to a lawsuit for the sentimental value of their dog, instead of the market value as it has been."

Boudloche said he doesn't know whether his client will appeal this ruling, which could send the case to the Texas Supreme Court, or ask for a rehearing of the case by the full seven-justice 2nd Court of Appeals, rather than the panel of three that issued the ruling.

If there is no appeal, the case will likely go back to trial court where a judge could consider the lawsuit on its merits or consider a request to dismiss it on grounds that the worker had governmental immunity.

Forgiveness

The Medlens said they didn't sue to win money.

"We wanted to have a law in place that would protect animals from being hurt," Katherine Medlen said. "Before this, animals were considered property, and you weren't allowed to sue or be compensated for sentimental value. The hurt we experienced was nowhere comparable to a piece of property."

In the two years since Avery's death, the Medlen family has not gotten another dog.

"Our children definitely want another dog, but we're not ready yet," Katherine Medlen said.

Though the Medlens will never forget Avery, they feel compassion for the shelter worker they believe was responsible for his death.

"We are supposed to forgive everyone for their wrongs," Jeremy Medlen said. "We were hurt about the shelter euthanizing him, but we aren't mad at" the worker.

"We forgive her."


 

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