A Horse is a Horse (Of Course) . . .But a Plaintiff?

by: Michelle C. Pardo

“Justice” (formerly named “Shadow”) is an American Quarter Horse who had been subject to neglect by his prior owner. According to a complaint recently filed in state court in Oregon, the horse was left outside, underfed, and suffered from a variety of serious medical problems, including frostbite, trauma and infection. After complaints by a neighbor, the former owner surrendered Justice to a rescue organization back in March of 2017 and thereafter pleaded guilty to criminal neglect.  The owner also agreed to pay restitution to the equine rescue organization for the costs of Justice’s care incurred prior to the plea. Media reports indicate that the owner paid more than $3,700 in restitution, was sentenced to three years probation, and may not possess any pets or livestock for five years (and only after completing 96 hours of community service). Typically, as disturbing as such court cases may be, that is the end of a legal proceeding involving animal abuse or neglect.

Justice’s story, however, has a “Part Two”. Justice is suing his former owner for negligence and has filed a lawsuit in his new name in a county court in Oregon.

Justice seeks at least $100,000 for veterinary care and damages for “pain and suffering”  to fund a trust that will provide care for him for life, as well as attorneys’ fees. The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), an animal activist organization which frequents state and federal courts, filed the lawsuit in Justice’s name. The lawsuit names as “Guardian” the Executive Director of the horse rescue organization that currently is caring for Justice.

Even if Justice suffered the greatest injustice at the hands of his owner, like his chimpanzee and monkey predecessors, Justice may have an uphill battle in getting a court to recognize that he can sue in his own name and win legal damages from his former owner. This typically has not stopped animal rights organizations from trying to expand the law to allow animals to have legal standing and sue in their own right. This case is reminiscent of the recent failed “monkey selfie” case brought by PETA, in which a panel of the Ninth Circuit rejected the argument that a crested macaque could sue for copyright protection (or that PETA was indeed the monkey’s legal “next friend”). https://blogs.duanemorris.com/animallawdevelopments/2018/07/11/name-blog-entry/

As many have pointed out, the ability for an animal to sue its owner in court – or anyone else for that matter – is highly controversial and leads to slippery slope arguments. If animals can sue in court, can they also be sued? Go to prison? Divorce their owners? Be held in contempt of court? Have a legal right to refuse to allow humans to ride them, to be exhibited in a zoo, or to participate in a dog show?

Another consideration is the motives of the organizations bringing these lawsuits, presumably as the legal “next friend” of the animal. As we saw in the recent PETA monkey selfie case, the appellate court criticized PETA for using the animal to advance its own agenda. One may also question the motives in bringing this lawsuit. Does Justice’s “guardian”, or her counsel, ALDF, really expect Justice’s former owner to have the ability to pay a judgment to fund Justice’s long term care, much less in excess of $100,000? If there is no chance for a monetary recovery, what is the practical point of the lawsuit and is the use of judicial resources for what may be (at best) a hollow victory justified? Or is this entire lawsuit (and re-naming the horse “Justice”) merely a publicity grab designed to fundraise or advance ALDF’s agenda?

Defense counsel for Justice’s former owner has called the entire case “a poorly thought out fantasy, designed apparently to test this Court’s patience for tolerating political rhetoric and frivolous lawsuits.” Whether Justice will ultimately see his day in court is a legal battle for another day.