The Supreme Court of Texas agreed Friday, Sept. 21, to hear arguments for a case that could allow negligence-related emotional damages to be awarded to a couple whose lost pet was mistakenly euthanized at a municipal animal shelter.
The case—which veterinarians, trial lawyers and advocacy organizations are watching as a potential game-changer in the field of animal law—began when Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s dog, Avery, escaped from their back yard in June 2009. The dog was picked up by animal control, but when Jeremy Medlen went to retrieve Avery, he didn't have enough money to pay the fee.
He was told he could return by June 10 with the money and the dog would be held with a tag on his cage notifying shelter employees not to euthanize the dog. On June 6, shelter worker Carla Strickland mistakenly placed Avery on a list to be euthanized the following day. When the Medlens returned to collect Avery, they found out he had been euthanized.
The Medlens sued Strickland, requesting intrinsic and sentimental value for the dog. However, when the case went to trial court, the judge ruled to dismiss, saying the Medlens hadn’t stated “a claim for damages recognized as law.” The Medlens appealed this ruling to the Second District Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial judge’s decision and remanded the case back to trial court. Strickland appealed that decision in January 2012 to the state’s Supreme Court, asking it to reverse the appellate court decision and dismiss the case from trial court.
In her most recent appeal Strickland states that the verdict would create a “new and independent cause of action—loss of companionship for the wrongful death of a pet.” Strickland's attorney, John H. Cayce Jr., a retired Second Court of Appeals chief justice, says in an amendment to Strickland’s appeal that the appellate court’s ruling introduces a “sweeping change in animal law,” allowing pet owners to recover greater damages than what is available for the loss of some close human relatives.
Oral arguments in the Texas Supreme Court are set to being January 13, 2013.
This decision comes after New Jersey and California both recently saw cases that sought emotional damages for pet loss or damage, with New Jersey ruling that animals were property and owners couldn’t claim emotional damages, while a California appeals court upheld $50,000 in emotional damages (although the California verdict was based not on negligence but trespassing).