The Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments on Jan. 10 in a case that has attracted national attention for the legal and emotional question it presents: Should the state's civil justice system put a price tag on the love of a dog?
That question has been on the minds of various business, government and advocacy groups ever since Fort Worth's 2nd Court of Appeals decided Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen v. Carla Strickland on Nov. 3, 2011. In that case, the 2nd Court ruled that dog owners can recover damages from a defendant based on the "sentimental value" related to the loss of their pet.
Now that the defendant in Medlen has taken that question to the state's highest civil court, more than a dozen amici groups representing everyone from dog owners to the American Kennel Club have weighed in on the issue. Several of the seven amici briefs sent to the court touch on familiar Texas tort-reform arguments, including, for example, that if the high court allows Medlen to stand, the decision will spark similar litigation and ultimately drive up the cost of pet care due to higher insurance premiums for veterinarians.
But other amici argue that Medlen will do no such thing and merely allows plaintiffs to recover for the loss of property in this case a dog something Texas case law has allowed since 1891.
The background to Medlen, according to the 2nd Court's decision, is as follows: Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen sued Carla Strickland, an employee at the city of Fort Worth animal shelter, alleging she negligently proximately caused the death of their family's dog, Avery, by mistakenly euthanizing the dog after he escaped from their back yard. The Medlens sued for "sentimental or intrinsic" damages because Avery had little or no market value and was irreplaceable.
Strickland denied the allegation and objected to the Medlens' claims for damages on the grounds that such damages are not recoverable for the death of a dog. The trial court dismissed the Medlens' suit for failure to state a claim for damages recognized by law a ruling the Medlens successfully appealed to the 2nd Court [See "For the Love of Avery" Texas Lawyer, Nov. 14, 2011, page 1.]
The history and emotion behind the Medlen decision, as well as the attention it is receiving, is not lost on John Cayce, a former 2nd Court chief justice who will argue the case at the high court on behalf of Strickland.
"For more than 120 years, Texas law has recognized the 'special value' dogs have to their owners and has afforded greater compensation to aggrieved pet owners who have lost their dogs as a result of negligence than the majority of states in the nation," says Cayce, a partner in Fort Worth's Kelly Hart & Hallman.
"The Medlen case is not about whether dogs have special or sentimental value we agree that they do or whether existing Texas law provides fair compensation to owners like the Medlens who have lost their dog to negligence it clearly does," Cayce says. "The question the Texas Supreme Court has been asked to decide is whether existing law should be judicially expanded to offer much broader compensation to dog owners in the form of emotional damages than is available for the loss of a friend or relative?"
And that argument just about sums up what plaintiff attorney Randy Turner faces in trying to preserve the 2nd Court's ruling on behalf of his clients, the Medlens: the contentionthat the decision is a broad expansion of the law, comparable to allowing a plaintiff to recover for the mental anguish for the loss of a human family member, he says.