Law: The Place of Dogs in the Law

May 9, 2008

I am not an animal lover.  In fact, I’m closer to an animal disliker.  Sorry.  Today I was reading an article in a PRINT NEWSPAPER (they still have those, who knew) while not studying for contracts.  The article was about a Minnesota man who hit a dog in the middle of the street and is now suing the dogs owners for the damage it did to his car.  At first glance I was like “wow, another example of people trying to use the tort system to pass the buck.”  When I read the article, I started to feel somewhat bad for him (only a little, only for a second).  Basically, a 14 pound dog ran out into the street as he was driving.  It doesn’t appear like there is anything he could do to not hit it.  He hit the dog and damaged his bumper which in turn damaged his radiator.  He is asking for the cost of repairs plus the value of his time (he had to take off work).  Total price tag, about $2,000.

So ignoring the first question of where do you get a lawyer to take this case for that small pricetag, and assuming he is representing himself in small claims court, I don’t know how I feel about this case.  I can actually sort of see it going either way.  To me, it all seems to come down to this: What is the place of animals, specifically dogs, in the legal system.  If they are treated similar to humans, then he loses.  If they are more like furniture, then he wins.  But that isn’t the question I’m actually writting about today.  What I’m really writing is:  What SHOULD the place of animals be in the law?

Lets start by considering the extremes:

Animals as people:  With all due respect to all the people that think their dogs are their kids, but ANIMALS ARE NOT PEOPLE.  Sorry.  They are not.  They never will be.  That animal and somebody’s three year old are not the same.   Dogs are not people.  Dogs aren’t and SHOULDN’T be afforded the same protections as people.  If you see a dog run into the street and your choices are possible kill the dog or possible start a three car accident with the potential to kill somebody, you take your chances with the dog.  I think of it like this:  Somebody comes up to you and says “we are breaking your dogs leg, or we are breaking your neighbor’s son’s leg.  You let them break your dogs leg.  If dogs were people, then running one over would land you in jail.  Thats silly.  Sorry, it is. 

Dogs are furniture:  This isn’t really the case.  I mean, I don’ t like animals, want PETA to be labeled a terrorist organization, think we should test away on them if it can help humans, and think police investigating/prosecuting cruelty to animals crimes is a massive waste of taxpayer money, BUT I don’t think they are people.  If I see somebody take a chainsaw to their chair, I’d be like “whatever.”  If I saw somebody take a chainsaw to their dog, I’d be disgusted.  Then again, I’m not really opposed to a law that treats a dog as a thing for the purpose of CERTAIN parts of the law.  For example, lets say a 10 gallon drum rolls down your driveway and dents a car.  Clearly, you’re responsible.  I’m thinking it should be the same if your dog runs down your driveway into a car and dents it.  Then again, I’m not sure this isn’t the same for people.  Now lets say that drum rolls in front of a car and gets shattered.  Again, your responsible.  If its your daughter, the driver goes to jail.  Hmm, interesting.  This gets us back to the facts of this case, so really accomplishes nothing.  I think the “dogs and things” mentality has a lot of usefulness for certain elements of the law, but I cannot accept it in general. 

Something in between:

Now we reach the middle ground where I think everybody HAS to be.  The question is, where is the balance?  I don’t think there is a right answer.  The more I think about this case, the more I’m drawn towards the “dogs as things” mentality.  I think my ideal situation would be a legal fiction that says:  “in any situation where your dog causes an injury, your liability is the same as if it was a motor-scooter that was left running accidentally.”  Yes you didn’t accidentally do anything in this situation, but you did make a decision that imposed some risk on another person, so I’m thinking -bear the cost.  On the flip side, I realize that most people believe in some form of protection for animals, so this standard has to allow for a different role of dogs as “victims.”  I’m thinking here the rule is something about intentionality.  “The law will not protect accidental acts that harm dogs beyond the extent it would protect property, but it will protect intentional acts that harm them for no legitimate purpose” would be a compromise I can live with.

How would this work?  Cruelty to animals laws would stay the same.  If somebody walked up and shot your dog, you would be compensated, just like if somebody walked up to you and took a ledgehammer to your car.  If somebody is faced with “hurt and animal or possibly help a human” they are protected from getting in trouble for hurting the animal by the last clause. 

Is this my ideal standard?  No.  I think its too deferential to dogs.  But its a compromise I can live with.  What are your thoughts animal lovers?  Kurzman is much much more pro dog than I am, so don’t think he endorses this post.

If this principle were in place, how would the driver in our original hypothetical fare?  Well he probebally gets his car fixed at the expense of the dog owner (if your run away motor scooter goes into the street and damages a car, you fix it) if he can show there really wasn’t anything he could do to prevent it.   

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