The Current

Justice the horse, a victim of neglect, is taking his former owner to court

A horse is filing a civil lawsuit against his owner for suffering neglect and is looking for compensation to pay for necessary medical care. Advocates hope the groundbreaking case will advance animal status under the law but critics argue giving animals the right to sue is a slippery slope.

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Justice was found emaciated and 300 pounds underweight. (Submitted by Animal Legal Defence Fund)

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Lawyers for an eight-year-old American quarter horse that is suing his former owner say the horse — a victim of severe neglect — has standing in the case.

In March 2017, Justice — formerly known as Shadow — was rescued from his home in Washington County, Ore. He was 300 pounds underweight, covered in lice and his genitals were so frost bitten that they may require amputation.

"As a result of neglect, he has sustained permanent injuries that will require extensive medical care for the remainder of his life. And we feel that Justice has legally protected interest in Oregon," said Sarah Hanneken, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and one of the lawyers representing the horse.

Advocates hope the civil lawsuit to secure funding for his care will advance animal status under the law but critics argue giving animals the right to sue is a slippery slope.

Justice's genitals were so frostbitten that they might require amputation. (Submitted by Animal Legal Defence Fund)

Justice's previous owner has filed a motion to have the civil case, which was filed in May, dismissed — a move Hanneken said was expected.

The defendant argues that animals don't have standing "which is a common refrain you'll hear from detractors of efforts such as Justice's," Hanneken told The Current's guest host, Laura Lynch.

The horse's former owner pleaded guilty to criminal animal neglect in 2017 and was was ordered to pay $3,000 in restitution — an amount Hanneken said is very inadequate given the medical care Justice will need over time.

"He remains wholly uncompensated," she said.

'Why shouldn't Justice have that same right?'

Canadian animal rights lawyer Camille Labchuk says Justice has a reasonable case and hopes it will advance animal status under the law.

"Essentially, Justice has these health problems that are direct result of a criminal act, and the victim of a hit and run crime can sue for damages — for the psychological and physical trauma that they endured — so why shouldn't Justice have that same right?" 

"Why should his abuser get away with it just because he's a horse?"

Justice is currently living at Oregon-based Sound Equine Options, a horse rescue and rehabilitation organization co-founded by Kim Mosiman, who is now his guardian.

Labchuk​ says the non-profit horse shouldn't have to fundraise to pay for Justice's care.

​"The few protections that animals do have should be enforced by the state. But animals should have that right like Justice to go and enforce them themselves too."

But horses can't talk

Richard A. Epstein, an NYU law professor, finds the theory behind animal rights a dangerous one with broad implications.

There's no question that this is a case of cruelty, he says, but it shouldn't give an animal who feels pain the same legal rights as humans.

"If you create animals having rights, you then have to ask the way the world is going to look and they will now have rights to refuse ownership," he said.

It also boils down to "whether they are — or not — humans," Epstein said.

"This gets denounced as a form of speciesism," he said. But "if animals could talk to human beings and interchange — any animal, at any time — it would be fine."

The fact that Justice is not able to talk to his lawyer is not a new concept in court, said Hanneken. Often lawyers see plaintiffs who can't speak for themselves or cannot consult their attorneys, she said.

"For instance, young children or human beings who have been so badly injured that they are in a coma and yet they have the right to sue — and do sue — through a guardian or other individual who represent their interests," Hanneken said.

In Justice's case, Hanneken said she's quite hopeful he will win.

"We are very confident in the soundness of the legal theory that we are presenting," she said.

"So it just is going to be a matter of whether the courts in Oregon are ready to accept that animals have interests and that the laws are sufficient to protect them."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Written by Lisa Ayuso. This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin and Richard Raycraft.