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Texas court asks: Is man's best friend priceless?

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Photo -   This undated photo proved by the Medlen family shows their dog Avery. The Fort Worth, Texas family wants a jury to put a dollar amount on the emotional value of their beloved dog that an animal shelter mistakenly euthanized in 2009. The Texas Supreme Court tackled the question Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Medlen Family)
This undated photo proved by the Medlen family shows their dog Avery. The Fort Worth, Texas family wants a jury to put a dollar amount on the emotional value of their beloved dog that an animal shelter mistakenly euthanized in 2009. The Texas Supreme Court tackled the question Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Medlen Family)
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — 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, too, at times of whether dogs should be granted an emotional price tag that humans in many scenarios aren't even 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 Meldens 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 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.

He later painted a difference scenario: a twin sister walking a dog down the street when both are run over by a distracted driver barreling around the curve while texting. Under the law, damages for mental anguish can be collected only for the death of a parent, spouse or child. So wouldn't it be strange, Willett asked, for the surviving sister to collect money for the dog, but not her twin?

"It might seem strange. But not really," Turner responded. "Let's change the hypothetical and say that instead of walking her dog, she's carrying a family heirloom. And there's a collision, the sister is killed, and also the cherished family heirloom is destroyed. Well, under existing Texas law handed down by this court, there is no dispute she couldn't recover a wrongful death case for (her) sister, but she could for the sentimental value of the heirloom. That would be a strange result, but that's the law."

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.

He also said that sentient beings aren't like any other irreplaceable family memorabilia.

"Humans don't bond to heirlooms," Cayce said. "They bond to pets."

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 to immediately pay an $80 fee to get her back. When the family returned with the cash, they learned Avery had been put down.

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."

Cayce said Texas is already more generous than most states when it comes to compensating owners who lose dogs that have marketable value, such as a prize-winning pedigree show dog or a stunt dog whose owners invested thousands of dollars in training.

Justice Phil Johnson said changing the law might motivate owners to downplay their dog's actual worth so they could collect more on sentimental value instead.

"They're going to try to prove this is a worthless dog so that I can get a lot of money," he said.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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