What will happen to Justice
2 April 2019
… the horse? In September last year a County Court judge in Washington, Oregon, threw out a case for lack of standing. The claim (Justice vs Gwendolyn Vercher Case 18CV17601) was filed in the name of an eight year old quarter horse whose abuse at the hands of his owner had led to a conviction and fine for animal neglect.
In March 2017 the horse — then known as Shadow —was found emaciated and with a prolapsed penis that was swollen “red raw” and “oozing serum” as a result of frostbite. He was 300lb (136kg) underweight and also suffering from lice and rain scald having been left without adequate food or shelter throughout the winter. Although his owner agreed to pay the horse’s veterinary expenses up to the date of conviction, the equine charity maintain that the injuries he has suffered will require “special and expensive medical care for the rest of his life” and are a barrier to finding the horse a new home.
Portland based Animal Legal Defense Fund (ADLF), who brought the case, relied on Oregon case law which first paved the way to this unusual claim in 2014, when the state’s supreme court ruled that animals could be the victims of crime and had legally protected rights. According to the ADLF, under Oregon law,
animals are considered ‘sentient beings’, and if abused or neglected, courts treat them as victims of crime.
The ADLF took this one step further and argued that as a victim of crime, Justice could sue his abuser for the physical and emotional damages that result. This amounts to more than $100,000 (£74,000) to cover the cost of his ongoing care needs.
Although his short opinion rejects the notion of legal capacity or standing for non-human animals, Knowles J does invite the higher appellate courts to address this question afresh, in the light of the evolving recognition of rights for some animals, largely spearheaded by scientist and lawyer Steven Wise and his Nonhuman Rights Project
In his opinion, Knowles J acknowledges the inevitable floodgates argument against allowing such a novel case to proceed, but invites an appellate court to come to a different conclusion
if it wades into this public policy debate involving the evolution of animal rights. Or the Oregon Legislature could balance the public policy implications of the relief sought by Justice and craft legislation that would grant an animal the right to sue in its name for specified damages in specific instances such as a situation like this where the animal has been abused and suffered injury as a result
Knowles’ court, however, was “unable to take that leap”. It would indeed be a judicial and legislative task of some magnitude to separate the majority of nonhuman animals bred and hunted for food and laboratory research from a small minority of companion animals we would like to see protected in the courts. But not an impossible one.