Historic Ruling for Animals

Posted on August 1, 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
suffering.

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."


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