Sentimental value of dog's life debated


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AUSTIN, Texas -- They say all dogs go to heaven. But if they get there before their time, should someone pay up?

The Texas Supreme Court began mulling Thursday whether grieving dog owners should be able to sue for the "emotional value" of man's best friend. It comes after a Fort Worth animal shelter mistakenly euthanized a beloved -- but essentially worthless, in terms of actual market value -- family Labrador retriever named Avery who ran away from home in 2009.

Lining up in opposition are skittish veterinarians who say letting juries somehow calculate sentimental payouts would set a costly precedent that would ripple nationwide. Justices on Texas' highest civil court appeared skeptical at times, too, of whether dogs should be granted an emotional price tag that even humans in many scenarios aren't afforded under state law.

"Where do we draw the line?" Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd asked from the bench. "Cats? Fish? Birds?"

The court isn't expected to issue a ruling for several weeks.

Dogs are property under Texas law. Steal your neighbor's cocker spaniel, and you'll be jailed for theft. But Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen, Avery's owners, believe dogs deserve the same standing the law gives to truly irreplaceable objects -- say a great-grandmother's wedding ring, or an old family photograph destroyed in a fire.

Juries in Texas are allowed to weigh sentimental value when it comes to that kind of one-of-a-kind, cherished property. So the Medlens asked: Why aren't dogs and their loyal, loving and faithful companionship classified the same?

"We're asking dogs to be treated like all other property," Randall Turner, the family's attorney, told the court.

From the start, justices of the nine-member panel peppered Mr. 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.

John Cayce, an attorney for the shelter worker named in the lawsuit, argued that a victory for the Medlens would result in skyrocketing insurance premiums for veterinarians terrified of being sued.

The Medlen family did not attend the hearing. Their dog was mistakenly euthanized in 2009 despite the shelter placing a hold tag on Avery, after the family came to claim her at the shelter but was unable immediately to pay an $80 fee to get her back. When the family returned with the cash, they learned Avery had been put down.

Mr. Turner said the Medlens remain so brokenhearted they have yet to adopt another dog. He added that the family isn't actually trying to collect money, but merely trying to change the law so that "Avery didn't die in vain."

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