It's official: A horse can't sue someone in Washington County. Yet.
In a two-page ruling, Washington County Judge John Knowles ruled that Justice the Horse—a 8-year-old American quarter horse—won't be able to sue his former owner for neglect.
"The court finds that a non-human animal such as Justice lacks the legal status or qualifications necessary for the assertion of legal rights and duties in a court of law," writes Knowles.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the law firm representing Justice, plans on appealing the ruling to the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Justice's involuntary involvement in the court system began last summer, shortly after Justice was discovered at a Cornelius ranch severely underweight and with irreversible frostbite. His owner, Gwendolyn Vercher, was found guilty to first-degree animal neglect and agreed to pay for the costs of Justice’s care that accrued prior to July 2017. However, the physical impacts of Justice's neglect come with a lifetime of extra health care and housing costs.
According to Kim Mosiman, Justice's new owner who runs the horse rehab facility Sound Equine Options, the monthly cost of boarding and caring for a healthy horse is about $300. For Justice, Mosiman estimates, this monthly number is closer to $600. A large percent of that bill comes from the cost of boarding Justice in a heated indoor stable, as his permanent frostbite permits him from living outside. Justice also has permanent liver damage for eating toxic weeds out of starvation, Mosiman says.
Vercher's short-term restitution payments did little to guarantee a healthy life for the animal she irreparably injured. So Mosiman contacted ALDF, a national law firm interested in representing animals in court, to see if they could help. That's how, on May 1, Justice sued Vercher in a personal injury case for no less than $100,000.
This seemingly unusual case is only the latest in a national effort to strengthen animals' legal autonomy. In 2004, a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of whales against then-President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the US Navy’s harmful use of sonar. In 2011, a wildlife photographer ended up in federal court after a monkey had, essentially, taken a number of selfies using the photographer's camera. The photographer ended up publishing those photos and profiting off of them, which spurred PETA to sue for copyright infringement on behalf of the monkey. But a federal court of appeals in San Francisco ruled that the US Copyright Act only applied only to humans.
What's different in Justice's case, however, is that it's not being tried in federal court. Instead, the lawsuit against Vercher has been filed in a county court which adheres only to Oregon laws. Not coincidentally, recent case law made by the Oregon Court of Appeals has set a new, liberal precedent for animals' ability to seek legal recourse.
In 2012, state attorneys argued that a farmer who had severely neglected 20 animals on his property—predominantly horses and goats—should be given 20 different convictions of animal abuse, one conviction for every animal abused. A lower court had handed him one conviction of second-degree animal neglect for all abuses and 90 days in jail, ruling that animals can't be defined as victims under state law. The Oregon Court of Appeals, however, overturned that ruling.
In court last week, Vercher's attorney Geordie Duckler argued that allowing Justice to sue a human for neglect would "open the floodgates" to all animals suing everyone and anyone in court. Judge Knowles took note.
"There are profound implications of a judicial finding that a horse, or any non-human animal for
that matter, is a legal entity that has the legal right to assert a claim in a court of law," Knowles writes in his opinion. "Such a finding would likely lead to a flood of lawsuits whereby non-human animals could assert claims we now reserve just for humans and human creations such as business and other entities."
However, ADLF lawyer Matthew Liebman says the results of Justice's case would only impact one state law.
"Here all we're seeking is a way to vindicate already-created statutory rights that animals have under [Oregon's] anti-cruelty law," said Liebman in Knowles' courtroom last week.
The fight for Justice's autonomy is far from over.
“We’re disappointed with today’s decision dismissing Justice’s case; but we anticipated this case would ultimately be decided by the appellate courts," wrote Liebman in an email to the Mercury. "We’re excited to take our case to the Oregon Court of Appeals, and we’re optimistic they’ll agree that animals have the right to sue their abusers when they’re the victims of cruelty.”