horse sues former owner
Image Courtesy of Animal League Defense Fund

An 8-year-old horse named Justice seeks just that. Justice is a plaintiff in a groundbreaking lawsuit filed last week against his former owner and abuser to recoup the costs of his ongoing medical care required after severe neglect.

The 14-page lawsuit filed in Oregon state court on May 1st, 2018 by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) on behalf of Justice claims the horse was denied adequate food and shelter for months, leaving him “debilitated and emaciated” at the time of his rescue in March 2017.

A veterinarian determined he was 300 pounds underweight. Justice suffered from lice, a prolapsed penis from frostbite, and a bacterial skin infection known as rain rot. As a result of his neglect, Justice endured permanent physical and psychological injuries that will require specialized medical care for the rest of his life.

horse sues former owner- Justice neglect
Image Courtesy of Animal League Defense Fund

In an ALDF-issued press release, Executive Director Stephen Wells said, “Horses, like Justice, are intelligent animals with the capacity for rich emotional lives. Oregon law already recognizes Justice’s right to be free from cruelty—this lawsuit simply expands the remedies available when abusers violate animals’ legal rights.”

According to Sarah Hanneken, one of the attorneys representing Justice, Oregon state case law has shown animals have legally protected rights. The Oregonian reported that Hanneken said that “Justice should be allowed to recover the costs of damages for pain and suffering, just as a human victim would.”

As Hanneken explained, “The Oregon legislature clearly established an anti-cruelty statute for the safety and protection of animals. Victims of crimes can sue their abusers and animals are sentient beings that are recognized as victims under Oregon law. So, with that premise, we’ve come to the conclusion that animals can sue their abusers and we’re confident of our stance in this case.”

Oregon animal welfare laws are believed to impose one of the nation’s most protective statutory schemes. In 2014, Oregon Supreme Court was presented with whether an officer – “with specialized training in animal husbandry” – was in violation of Article I, section 9 of the Oregon Constitution or the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, “when without a warrant, he entered private property, seized the horse, and took the horse to a veterinarian.”

The Court concluded that “the officer acted lawfully because he had probable cause to believe defendants were committing the crime of animal neglect and reasonably believed, based on specific articulable facts, that immediate action was necessary to prevent further imminent harm to and the death of the horse.”

Justice’s abuser pled guilty to criminal animal neglect in 2017 and agreed to pay restitution only for the cost of Justice’s care prior to July 6, 2017. The lawsuit seeks damages for Justice’s care since this date and going forward. A legal trust will be established for any funds awarded to Justice through the lawsuit to pay for his care.

What about other cases where animals file lawsuits? Well, they haven’t been as lucky in court as Justice. For instance, according to ABC News, “In 2013, a chimpanzee sued his owners for freedom in New York and lost the case. And recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the adorable macaque monkeys that took selfies with a photographer’s camera did not own the rights to the images.”

The good news for Justice? Whether or not he wins the case, he’s in much better hands. According to People, Sound Equine Options, a horse rescue and rehabilitation organization, is currently caring for the horse.

What do you think? Should animals be able to sue humans?

Kristin Johnson is an executive and corporate communications professional, and founder of KSJ Communications, a communications and public relations firm. She consults with a diverse roster of clients spanning the technology, professional services, financial services, public sector, consumer, and healthcare industries. In addition to Rocket Matter, Johnson writes for various other publications as well.