Historic Ruling for AnimalsAugust 1st, 2006
It began with one of the cruelest animal abuse
cases imaginable. Three young men took Max, a brown tabby cat, from his
home in Spokane, Washington, doused him with gasoline, and set him on
fire in a field. Max suffered extensive burns and, after veterinary
efforts to save him were unsuccessful, had to be euthanized to end his
Following the 2003 criminal trial in which the teens received mere slaps on the wrists after being found guilty of first-degree animal cruelty, Bernadette Womack, Max’s guardian, brought a civil suit against Jason Brumback, Rusty Von Rardon, and Jayson Anderson—the three who abducted and maliciously tortured Max. Ms. Womack sought compensation for the severe emotional pain and distress she had suffered, as well as for Max’s inherent value. She received a $5,000 award, which included some unspecified amount for her emotional distress. However, the trial court dismissed other claims relating to Max’s torture. Womack filed an appeal on the dismissed claims.
Historic Ruling by Washington Court of Appeals
Finally, in May of this year, a Washington Court of Appeals upheld the judgment in Womack’s favor, but notably overturned the Spokane Superior Court’s ruling with respect to some of the dismissed claims. In an historic ruling, the court recognized a new cause of action—malicious injury to a pet—in cases involving animal abuse. (A "cause of action" is the set of facts that entitles a person to sustain a lawsuit and to seek a judicial remedy.) For the first time anywhere, malicious injury to a companion animal resulting in a guardian’s emotional distress was recognized as a legitimate legal claim!
To assist Adam Karp, Womack’s attorney and an attorney member of ALDF’s Animal Law Program, on the appeal, ALDF filed an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief, which stated, "Unlike other property—that has no sentient life and cannot even be killed—Max was not a disposable item that can be replaced on the market... Max was indisputably a...living, breathing, feeling being who formed a valuable relationship with [Ms. Womack] and had an identifiable emotional life and consciousness. There should be no doubt that when [she] lost Max, [Ms. Womack] lost an important member of her family."
ALDF argued that the Court should reject an evaluation of Max based on "market value" and instead award a measure of compensation for the loss of Max that reflects his "actual value to [Ms. Womack]." ALDF argued that the "traditional market value" approach to damages does not reflect society’s values and does not adequately compensate a guardian when someone wrongfully kills or injures his or her companion animal.
"The Max case is significant from the standpoint of the court starting to get it," Karp explains. "They see that animals aren’t like other property, and that emotional attachments to them are genuine and foreseeable. This is a great step forward in judicial recognition of the inherent value of living beings."