State Legislative Update - December 2013

State Legislative Update
 Prepared by Department of State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs
AVMA Communications Division
December 15, 2013

Equine dentistry enforcement actions

Two unrelated cases may indicate that prosecutors, judges and regulators are beginning to take more seriously incidents of unauthorized practice of equine dentistry. A county judge in Texas approved an agreement between the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners and Dena Corbin, who is not licensed in Texas as a veterinarian or as an equine dentist. Corbin agreed to stop performing dentistry on horses and administering drugs to animals. The board filed a complaint against Corbin for allegedly injecting a horse with drugs while working on its teeth. The board is asking for a restraining order, civil penalties of $1,000 per day and attorney’s fees. The complaint alleges that Corbin diagnosed a horse with swollen gums and incisor problems, sharp points and worn teeth, and then anesthetized the animal with a mixture of drugs. She then removed swollen tissue and “floated” the horse’s teeth to ease chewing and reduce pain, court documents state. The agreement will be in effect until a hearing in March 2014, at which time the court will consider the board’s request for a permanent injunction against Corbin.
Meanwhile, a Connecticut woman is facing charges of animal cruelty and practicing veterinary medicine without a license after a horse suffered a seizure while she was performing a dental procedure. Shelley Lavigne is accused of giving a horse a sedative incorrectly, causing the horse to have a seizure while she was preparing to file the animal’s teeth at a local stable, according to police documents. The owner of the horse complained to police, who launched an investigation which revealed that Lavigne is not allowed to administer sedatives under state law. Lavigne was released after posting $1,000 bond and is scheduled to appear in court in a few weeks. Lavigne said her arrest highlights the problem with state laws that penalize those who work as equine floaters and do not have veterinary licenses. Her license does not allow her to use sedation or power floats on horses, although she allegedly did both. If found guilty, Lavigne could face a maximum penalty of one year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both, on the animal cruelty charge. Each of the five counts of practicing veterinary medicine without a license has up to a 6-month prison sentence, $300 fine, or both.

Legal watch

This month, the animal rights group Nonhuman Rights Project filed three lawsuits in New York state courts asking judges to declare that chimpanzees have legal standing and the right to bodily liberty. The lawsuits target two research chimps at a university and two chimps held on private property, and request that the animals be moved to a sanctuary.  In all three cases, judges denied the writ for habeas corpus, which allows a person who is under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court. The decisions will be appealed, with appellate court hearings expected in 2014.

The suits are a landmark attempt by the Nonhuman Rights Project, led by well-known animal rights attorney Steven Wise, to win “legal personhood” for animals in the United States. The group has been researching the best legal strategy and jurisdiction for its first big cases. According to the organization’s website, its mission is to “change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.”  Legal recognition of animal “personhood” could have a profound impact not only on animal research, but on other aspects of animal ownership and use.

How much is an animal owner entitled to recover when his or her pet is wrongfully injured or killed? In a recent article, published in the Stanford Journal of Animal Law & Policy, attorney Phil Goldberg offers a thorough history of how courts, legislatures and commentators have approached this question. He points out that courts generally find that the tort system does not compensate for relational emotional attachments, including with pets or cherished personal property, and even for harm to close personal relations, such as a cousin, fiancée, or human best friend. Goldberg concludes that keeping emotion-based damages out of pet litigation is ultimately what is best for pets themselves. Adding new, uncertain liability to pet litigation would cause the price of pet services and products to rise. If owners cannot afford to pay these higher costs, then many pets will not get the care they need. The author explains that how this issue plays out will have an enormous impact on many Americans and their pets. Claims over emotional injuries for pet loss could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars and would arise in a variety of circumstances implicating many aspects of society, he says. Examples include allegations of veterinary malpractice, car accidents, neighborly pet scuffles and police actions.

Phil Goldberg is a partner in the Washington, D.C.-based Public Policy Group of Shook Hardy & Bacon, LLP. He frequently submits amicus briefs and lectures on issues related to damages in pet injury litigation. The article is titled Courts and Legislatures Have Kept the Proper Leash on Pet Injury Lawsuits; Why Rejecting Emotion-Based Damages Promotes The Rule of Law, Modern Values, and Animal Welfare, and was  published in Volume 6 of the Stanford Journal of Animal Law & Policy, 2013.  

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