The Long Leash of the Law
Seattle, WA - We recently came across a law article that stretched across both human and animal law. Domestic violence, custody, and wrongful death are shared by each and hold similar challenges too. The concept can be summed up quickly by asking: Why do people have to hit people (or animals)? The writer of the article, Daniel Jack Chasen, discusses a recent meeting he attended on the subject of human and animal law hosted by the Washington State Bar Association.
As you might imagine, all kinds of painful stories emerged. Not only is domestic violence and animal abuse often practiced by the same offender, sometimes the offender abuses the pet in front of their partner, possibly to "get even" or to demonstrate power. Victims of domestic abuse also may stay longer with the abuser if they are unsure where to place their pets when they go to a shelter. For many reasons, prosecuting offenders of these crimes is difficult.
Other parts of the program dealt with less emotional issues. One speaker talked about zoning doggie daycare centers. Another discussed how to establish a trust to support a pet after its owner dies. In Washington State, "a trust for one or more animals is valid." Since pets are considered property -- and because a trust beneficiary doesn't legally own assets -- allowing a pet trust means that some property can own other property.
Another area of the meeting dealt with service animals. In Washington State, landlords are required to accommodate service animals in rental housing. A "no pet policy" is irrelevant because service animals are not considered pets in Washington State. Chasen points out that the qualifications to become a service pet are marginal:
"It qualifies as a service animal if some professional -- an aroma therapist might do -- says that the services it performs, for which it needn't have been specially trained, are linked to the owner's disability. You can't demand a special damage deposit. The owner is liable for any damage, but good luck collecting.
On the issue of collecting, attorney Adam Karp spoke of a client that got a $75,000 judgment after a pit bull, trained for fighting and allowed to roam free, killed a person's cat. Six years ago, such a high number was unheard of, but a 2006 court of appeals ruling changed this. State courts now recognize that harm may be caused to a person's "emotional well-being" by malicious injury to a person's pet (a pet being a form of personal property).
Collecting judgment in the pit bull case was a separate matter. In response to the lawsuit, the pit bull owners declared bankruptcy. The case is still pending in bankruptcy court. Karp said that there are ways of insulating a judgment from discharge in bankruptcy, but it's not a slam dunk. What does seem to be a slam dunk is that even when courts do recognize victim suffering, pit bull owners continue to evade accountability.
02/19/08: Dogs May Lose Right to "One-Free" Bite in New York
03/29/08: Texas Supreme Court: Dog Owner Can't "Watch" Attack and Do Nothing