Eric King, NBC 5 News
Dog owners can't sue for emotional damages if someone else is to blame for the death of their pet, according to a Texas Supreme Court ruling.
Man's best friend is priceless. But a dog gone is worth nothing in Texas.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that bereaved dog owners can't sue for emotional damages when someone else is to blame for the death of a pet. A Fort Worth family had challenged the law after an animal shelter mistakenly euthanized their Labrador retriever in 2009.
Justice Don Willet wrote the 25-page opinion with flourish rarely seen from the state's highest civil court. He opened with a dog-admiring passage from the English poet Lord Byron and opined the heartache wrought by "Old Yeller."
Yet Willet concluded that "the human-animal bond, while undeniable" doesn't elevate to collecting money for grief.
"Measuring the worth of a beloved pet is unquestionably an emotional determination -- what the animal means to you and your family -- but measuring a pet's value is a legal determination," Willet wrote. "We are focused on the latter, and as a matter of law an owner's affection for a dog (or ferret, or parakeet, or tarantula) is not compensable."
Texas does allow owners to collect damages for wrongfully killed pets that had economic value, such as a prize-winning show dog or a stunt canine.
Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen said equally irreplaceable was their family dog, Avery, although the pet was essentially worthless in terms of market value. Avery wound up at an animal shelter after running away from home and was mistakenly put down, even though a worker at the pound placed a tag on Avery instructing that she not be euthanized.
Adding to the heartbreak, the Medlens had tracked Avery down at the shelter but did not have the $80 on hand to retrieve her. When they returned with the cash a few days later, it was too late.
Randy Turner, the family's attorney, said Kathryn Medlen sobbed upon hearing the court's decision.
"They never cared about the money. They just wanted to change the law," Turner said. "This is a huge defeat for our four-legged friends."
"You can recover the sentimental value of a photo of your dog if it's destroyed, but you cannot recover the sentimental value of a dog if it's destroyed," Turner told NBC 5.
Dogs are considered property under Texas law. Turner argued to the high court in January how that should make collecting sentimental damages for a pet no different than suing for the negligent destruction of family heirlooms.
The nine-member court disagreed in a unanimous opinion.
Yet they weren't without sympathy.
"Even the gruffest among us," Willet wrote, "tears up (every time) at the end of Old Yeller."
NBC 5's Eric King contributed to this report.