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Leonard Angiulo: Evolving Status of Animals in the MA Legal System

Monday, April 28, 2014

 

Our culture seems to recognize animals as part of family in a new way and our law is evolving rapidly to reflect the same, believes Leonardo Angiulo.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine recently about grass fed and grain fed animals and the difference in meat quality between the two. Some other friends of mine are vegetarians, but will still talk to me despite the fact that I have a favorite butcher shop. Between both these camps is an understanding that domesticated household animals have a distinct place in our hearts. Our culture seems to recognize animals as part of family in a new way and our law is evolving rapidly to reflect the same. The past several weeks in Massachusetts have been especially active.

A recent case from Suffolk County is a good example. An elderly woman suffering from Dementia had created a significant trust fund to benefit the seven year old aptly named “Puddy Cat.” It is common that animals will be provided for after an owner's death as if they were children. The uncommon, and unfortunate, part of this story is that the two humans responsible for following through with the fiduciary obligations have allegedly misappropriated funds. Since they are not also charged with animal cruelty they presumably fed the animal regularly and maybe even offered a dose or two of catnip along the way. If the allegations are true the defendants may have treated the cat better than they treated the owner.

The need to treat animals well and the intrinsic value of a pet's life don't appear in the State or Federal Constitution, but we seem to instinctively agree with these ideas. Two other recent cases from the Supreme Judicial and Appeals Courts develop these ideas into precedent.

In Commonwealth v. Heather Duncan the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that police may enter homes and yards without a search warrant to protect dogs who may be in danger of physical harm. As background, Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the Fourth Amendment to the Federal Constitution restrict government intrusion into private property. The basic principle is that police cannot enter private property without a warrant unless circumstances present one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. Since the Duncan ruling of April 11, 2014 the emergency exception, allowing police entry if there is an objectively reasonable basis to believe someone inside is injured or in imminent danger of physical harm, now includes animals.

The court's basis for extending this exception to protect “non-human animal life” included citation to various statutes that exhibit a public policy interest in minimizing animal suffering. Where statutory authority has developed to prohibit cruel treatment the court reasoned that trained professionals, who are also government agents, should be granted the authority to provide emergency treatment. Of note is that the court distinguished between an especially strong social interest in avoiding injury to animals inflicted by humans versus injuries caused by non-human sources.

In the context of civil law, the Massachusetts Appeals Court case of Irwin v. Degtiarov affirmed a unique way of calculating damages when it comes to injury to animals. In the Irwin case, a dog's owner filed suit to recover the cost of veterinary bills for surgery required to save the dog's life. The defendant's argument was the cost of surgery exceeded the value of the animal itself and, therefore, plaintiff's damages should have been limited to the replacement value of the dog rather than the price of surgery. Citing common law going back to 1904, the court found that the costs of saving an animal's life can be recovered by a plaintiff and one of the factors used to determine whether the costs incurred are reasonable is whether, or not, the animal in question was part of a household.

The importance of pets in people's lives is easy to see. Ask any owner what they think of their dog or cat and you will most often get a response of devotion and affection that some people won't give to human members of their family. It appears as though the legal protections afforded to those animals is growing.

 

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

 

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