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A Horse Who Sued A Person Provokes Oregon Agricultural Interests

Three Oregon agriculture groups are opposing a lawsuit to expand animal rights, and allow nonhuman victims to recoup damages from abusive people.

The case puts a fundamental question to the courts: Can a horse sue a person?

Last year a Washington County judge ruled no, dismissing a complaint filed on behalf of a horse named Justice. The complaint sought damages from a woman whose neglect left the horse with serious injuries and ongoing medical needs.

Animal Legal Defense Fund appealed the dismissal, and has long argued animal cruelty laws aren’t enough when victims have no standing in the court system.

The Oregon Farm Bureau is leading opposition to any precedent for animal personhood, joined by the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and the Dairy Farmer’s Association. The agricultural groups jointly filed a friend of the court brief on Nov. 7.

“This case puts the livestock industry and rural Oregon at risk,” according to a Farm Bureau statement this month.

The statement goes on to renounce the facts of Justice's case as "abhorrent."

“However, Oregon law already has severe consequences for those who abuse and neglect animals ... This case is simply an effort by animal rights activists to pull the ultimate thread in a longstanding effort to unravel and halt livestock operations in Oregon.”

Over the years there have been many failed attempts to get the courts to recognize animals as plaintiffs.

After Justice the horse starved, attorneys sued his former owner Gwendolyn Vercher for more than $100,000 in damages. Vercher, of Cornelius, Oregon, has been criminally convicted on a misdemeanor charge of animal neglect in the first degree. She was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay about $4,000 in fines, according to court records. 

In the civil suit, attorneys named a woman who helped rescue and rehabilitate Justice as his guardian. Upon dismissal of the complaint, the guardian was ordered to pay Vercher $1,500 in court fees. Vercher unsuccessfully sought repayment for legal fees and an additional $5,000.

Due to injuries related to malnutrition, untreated infection and frostbite, Justice “most likely will eventually have to have part of his penis amputated,” and will need ongoing medical management, according to the rescue group caring for him, Sound Equine Options.

<p>Justice shortly after he arrived at a horse rescue in 2017.&nbsp;</p>

Courtesy of Sound Equine Options


Justice shortly after he arrived at a horse rescue in 2017. 

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Emily Cureton Cook is OPB’s Central Oregon Bureau Chief. She's the former producer of the Jefferson Exchange on JPR and has contributed award-winning programming to Georgia Public Broadcasting. Emily is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin where she earned degrees in history, studio art and Russian.