Pet Parade: How much is a pet's life worth

By AL SWANSON, United Press International  |  Nov. 20, 2011 at 5:30 AM
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Many would say the value of a pet is priceless, but legally just how much is a fuzzy, furry or feathered friend really worth?

A Texas appeals court this month for the first time ruled a pet can be worth more than what you paid for it and what it was trained to do.

The ruling, which is expected to be appealed, came two years after Avery, an 8-year-old Labrador mix, was mistakenly euthanized at a Fort Worth shelter. Avery was picked up by animal control in 2009 and his owners found him at a shelter the next day.

His owner didn't have $95 in cash to pay the fine and fees to get him out immediately and was waiting for a visiting veterinarian at the shelter to implant a microchip in the dog's ear. Someone added the dog to the euthanasia list instead of holding him for the owner.

"It was a horrible time for us," Katherine Medlen, who got Avery as a puppy from a homeless man, told the (Fort Worth, Texas) Star-Telegram. "I've never lost a family member or a pet before."

The Medlens took their case to court saying they never want anyone else to go through what they went through. A Tarrant County judge threw out their lawsuit against a shelter worker; they appealed and the suit was reinstated.

While the mixed-breed dog had little market value the Medlens said to them Avery was "irreplaceable."

In the first Texas court ruling in 120 years on the value of a dog, a three-justice panel of the Texas 2nd Court of Appeals, all-Republicans, said: "Because of the special position pets hold in their family, we see no reason why existing law should not be interpreted to allow recovery in the loss of a pet at least to the same extent as any other personal property."

"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners. We interpret timeworn Supreme Court law in light of subsequent [Texas] Supreme Court law to acknowledge that the special value of 'man's best friend' should be protected," Justice Lee Gabriel wrote.

Texas law already lets judges include pets in protection orders. Legal experts say the appeals court ruling could open the door for negligence lawsuits seeking damages for emotional loss or sentimental value against vets, kennels and even dog sitters if a pet is injured or killed while in their care.

"It is the first time in Texas history that an appeals court has allowed a dog owner to recover sentimental-value damages for the death of a dog," Randy Turner, the Medlen's attorney, told the newspaper. "This is a huge deal for pet owners. Up until the Medlen case, if a person came to see me wanting to sue someone for killing their dog, I had to tell them it was not worth it."

"No matter how attached they were to their pet, and no matter how devastated they were by its death … they [had been] only entitled to the 'market value' of the animal."

In their suit, the Mediens did not seek specific damages. They say they didn't sue to get money and have forgiven the former shelter worker who sentenced Avery to death.


Odds and ends

The London newspaper The Daily Telegraph reports suspected pet insurance fraud in Britain has jumped more than 400 percent in the past year -- with reports of some people killing their pets to collect insurance.

The Association of British Insurers said $3.052 million in pet insurance fraud was detected in 2010 compared to $664,000 in 2009. About 2.3 million British dogs and cats were insured last year and investigators say owners have faked accidents, sold animals or in some cases even killed pets to collect a payout for early death.

"I am aware of cases where owners have maimed their animals in order to make claims on their policies," solicitor Carys Clarke told the Telegraph.

In one scam a missing pet covered by insurance may never have existed in the first place, the newspaper said.

The average premium for pet insurance in Britain is $348 a year. U.S. pet insurers collected $332 million in premiums in 2009.

South Africa's Independent Online reports some pet owners are lying to obtain cut-rate veterinary services at SPCA clinics.

"Many people give their pets to their elderly mother-in-law to bring in to benefit from the pensioners' discount," said Barbara Patrick of Kloof SPCA in Cape Town. "We have had cases of domestic workers coming in with 'their' dogs that they don't know anything about."

The subsidized SPCA pet care is intended to help pets of the unemployed or underprivileged, with owners means tested and charged on a sliding scale.

"Many people believe that when they bring their pets to the SPCA, they are doing us a favor as they are making a meaningful contribution to the organization," Patrick said.

She said those well-off should not tax the resources of the SPCA.

It's been a trying time for the dogs, cats and other pets that were living with Occupy Wall Street protesters camping out in New York's Zuccotti Park.

Before the encampment was rousted and removed by police Tuesday morning, volunteer vets and animal caretakers were offering free check-ups, vaccinations, de-worming and flea treatments, the New York Daily News reports.

"It's reassuring to know you can take your pets here," said camper Chris Brown. "As things get worse in the economy, we have access to less and less healthcare, and the same goes for our pets."

Protesters were allowed back in the park Tuesday but a judge ruled there would be no more tent camping.

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