What happened during the Christmas holidays of 1979 and the early weeks
of 1980 set the emotions of Annette Powell and her two young children,
Mario Edward Lawrence and Gwendolyn Daphne Lawrence, on a roller
First, their little dog (we'll call her Delores) was run over in
Chattanooga, Tennessee. Then Delores was rushed to the Ashland Terrace
Animal Hospital where, to the joy and relief of the entire
Powell/Lawrence family, Dr. J.L. Standard saved her life. Then the
Ashland Terrace Animal Hospital presented the family with a bill for
$155.00. The family members explained that they were unable to pay the
entire bill immediately. Could they pay it over time? But this did not
sit well with Dr. Standard and the Ashland Terrace Animal Hospital.
The family claimed that, on January 10, one of the Ashland Terrace
Animal Hospital's employees called them up with extremely distressing
news. He threatened to "do away with" their beloved Delores unless the
bill was paid "in cash and in full" by the very next day. But upset as
they were, the family still couldn't afford to pay the bill in full in
such a short time.
The next day, instead of paying the fee, the family asked a Circuit
Court judge to order that Delores' life be spared and demanded that Dr.
Standard and the Ashland Terrace Animal Hospital pay them damages for
the severe emotional distress that they said the deadly threat had
caused them to suffer. It had achieved, they claimed, precisely its
intended effect of causing them extreme emotional distress. But while
its object might have been to drive the family somehow, somewhere to
come up with the $155.00, it had instead driven them to the courthouse.
They received an order that temporarily saved Delores' life, but it was
dissolved within a couple weeks.
Dr. Standard and the Ashland Terrace Animal Hospital then began a
two-pronged defense. First, four days after being sued, they invoked a
Tennessee statute that allowed a veterinarian to give notice to the
owner of an animal that, if a fee for care was not paid within ten days,
an animal could be considered to have been abandoned and could be turned
over to the nearest humane society or dog pound for disposal. Second,
they stoutly denied to the court that any telephone threat "to do away
with" Delores had ever been made and asked the judge instead to throw
out the family's claim and order them to pay the $155.00 fee.
We don't know for sure what their grounds were for asking the judge to
throw out the family's claim for emotional distress, but we can make a
good guess. Often, emotional distress damages can be recovered against
someone who intends to inflict severe emotional distress, and succeeds,
through actions that courts believe are extreme and outrageous, beyond
all bounds of decency, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.
Dr. Standard and the Ashland Terrace Animal Hospital probably argued
that, even if the family had been threatened with Delores' execution,
that threat wasn't extreme enough or outrageous enough or indecent
enough or intolerable enough to allow the suit to continue.
The Circuit Court judge agreed. When the family turned to the Court of
Appeals for help, it sided with Dr. Standard and the Ashland Terrace
Animal Hospital. They tried one last time and finally found sympathetic
ears in five justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court. If the threat to
execute Delores in order to collect a bill had been made - and they
would leave it to a jury to decide if it had been made or not - then a
jury could reasonably conclude that it was extreme, outrageous, and
intolerable behavior. And so the family's claim for emotional distress
survived. But, sadly it seems, Delores did not