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Horse sues former owner for neglect, but can courts recognize animals as plaintiffs?

Horse on a farm in California.
Horse on a farm in California.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Last summer, an Oregon woman pleaded guilty to criminal neglect for leaving her horse underfed in the outdoors. But Justice, the horse, did not take this sitting down. Justice is suing its previous owner, Gwendolyn Vercher, alleging negligence.

The case begs the question if courts can recognize animals as plaintiffs. Last year, Connecticut became the first state to allow courts to appoint lawyers or law students as advocates in animal cruelty cases. In Oregon, animals are protected under the state’s anti-cruelty law, which describes animals as “sentient beings.” Animal Legal Defense Fund, the firm that is filing the lawsuit in Justice’s name, says state courts have ruled that animals can be considered individual victims, a decision that gives animals the right to sue their abusers.

Meanwhile, Justice, whose former name is Shadow, has moved to a temporary home in Estacada. Its ignorance of the lawsuit is irrelevant to the case, according to the law firm representing the horse. While Justice enjoys its time in the spotlight, we debate if a horse can actually sue its former owner for negligence.


Matthew Liebman, attorney specializing in animal law and director of litigation at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal rights nonprofit group suing on behalf of Justice the horse

Richard L. Cupp, law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, where his focus includes torts, products liability and animal law; he tweets @CuppRick