Animal personhood status

In Justice v. Gwendolyn Vercher, Case No. 18CV17601 (Oregon Judicial Department, Washington County Circuit Court, Twentieth Judicial District, Sept. 17, 2018) the Court dismissed a complaint filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, for Justice, the Plaintiff, a quarter horse.  The Court held that an animal, including the equine Plaintiff, lacked the legal capacity to sue, pursuant to Oregon Rule of Civil Procedure (ORCP) §21(A)(4) and for failure to state facts sufficient to constitute a claim, pursuant to ORCP 21(A)(8).

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 . . . Justice is not the real party in interest. 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. 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. Furthermore, non-human animals are incapable of accepting legal responsibilities.

The Court observed that an appellate court or the state legislature might determine that public policy regarding this issue should permit such legal actions from animals, perhaps opening the door for further uncertainty through an appeal or legislative action.

The Court declined to award attorneys’ fees and costs to the defendant that was dragged into this seemingly frivolous lawsuit.

This is not the first time—or likely the last—activist nonprofit organizations have filed lawsuits on behalf of animals, in attempts to elevate their status to those of humans.  The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. (NHRP) filed a number of failed attempts to apportion personhood rights to certain animals, The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on Behalf of Tommy v. Lavery, 100 N.E.3d 846 (N.Y. 2018); The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. ex rel. Tommy v. Lavery, 54 N.Y.S.3d 392, 394 (N.Y. App. Div. 2017), leave to appeal denied sub nom. The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on Behalf of Tommy v. Lavery, 100 N.E.3d 846 (N.Y. 2018); The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. ex rel. Kiko v. Presti, 3 N.Y.S.3d 698 (N.Y. App. Div. 2015); The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., ex rel. Kiko v. Presti, 999 N.Y.S.2d 652 (App. Div. 2015); Article 70 of CPLR for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. ex rel. Hercules & Leo v. Stanley, 16 N.Y.S.3d 898 (N.Y.  Sup. Ct. 2015); The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Stanley, 2015 WL 1812988 (N.Y. Sup.); see also, Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004); Naruto v. Slater, 2018 WL 1902414 (9th Cir. April 23, 2018); Tilikum v Sea World Parks & Entertainment, 84 2 F.Supp.2d 1259 (S.D. Cal. 2012).

NHRP filed another petition, The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc., No. 17-5009822, slip op. (Conn. Super. Ct. Dec. 26, 2017), seeking personhood rights through a writ of habeas corpus for three elephants in Connecticut owned by R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc. (the “Commerford Zoo”) on November 13, 2017.  Long before the scheduled status conference, which was to be held on February 27, 2018, the Court filed a Judgment of Dismissal and related Memorandum of Decision on December 26, 2017, finding that the petitioner lacked standing under the “next friend” theory.  Id.

The burden is on the next friend clearly to establish the propriety of his status and thereby justify the jurisdiction of the court . . . [and holding that] [b]ecause the petition has failed to allege that it possesses any relationship with the elephants, the petitioner lacks standing.

The Court also found the petition “wholly frivolous on its face in legal terms,” stating:

even if the petitioner here had standing, resolution in its favor would require this court to determine that the asserted liberty interests in its petition are assured by statute, constitution, or common law, i.e., that an elephant is a person for the purposes of this land’s laws that protect the livery and equality interests of its persons . . . [and] [b]ased on the law as it stands today, this court cannot so find.

Recently, the NHRP filed another writ of habeas corpus in Orleans County, New York, The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on behalf of Happy v. Breheny, No. 18-45164 (N.Y. 2018) “demanding recognition of [an elephant named] Happy’s legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty as well as her transfer to an elephant sanctuary.”  Happy has been housed at the Bronx Zoo since around 1977.  In the Memorandum of Law filed in support of its application, NHRP did not cite to the decision in R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc.

Circuit Judge Smith’s concurring opinion in Naruto v. Slater, 2018 WL 1902414 (9th Cir. April 23, 2018) also discusses restrictions on “next friend” or “third party” standing, stating:

The limitations on the ‘next friend’ doctrine are driven by the recognition that ‘it was not intended that the writ of habeas corpus should be availed of, as matter of course, by intruders or uninvited meddlers, styling themselves as next friends’ . . . Indeed, if there were no restrictions on ‘next friend’ standing in federal courts, the litigant asserting only a generalized interest in constitutional governance could circumvent the jurisdictional limits of Art. III simply by assuming the mantle of ‘next friend.’

More to come on these latest legal proceedings and other continued attempts to change the legal status of nonhuman animals.