Animal Law

Pet Lovers Take A Bite Out Of Family Court

Tired Pug.JPGYou’ve heard horror stories about messy divorces where people litigate over the family pet. Traditionally, pets are regarded as just another piece of property to be divided up among the former spouses. But that could be about to change. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

[A] second trial on the custody of the nearly six-year-old brown pooch is set to begin. [Doreen Houseman] plans to testify again that her ex-fiancé broke an oral agreement to let her have the dog after she moved out of their house.
In March, a three-judge appeals panel ordered a new trial, saying Superior Court Judge John Tomasello should not have treated Dexter as just another piece of furniture during the first trial, in Gloucester County, in 2007

Houseman argued against the speciesist system where pets are considered mere property by family courts. Houseman and various animal defense lawyers tried to use the Michael Vick case as precedent:

They suggested the judge should also weigh what was best for the dog. That had been done, they said, with the dogs that belonged to former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, after he was involved in a dog-fighting ring.

The appellate panel declined to go so far as to apply the best interests test to a dog. Apparently, tail wags per minute is not a reliable indicator.
But the panel didn’t have to apply a best interests test. The trial court judge seemed to be just enough of a jerk to give the appellate court grounds to give Houseman a new trial.
More details after the jump.

It sounds like Superior Court Judge John Tomasello overplayed his hand during Houseman’s first trial:

Tomasello had ruled Dexter was simply property and should go to the person possessing it. “Dogs are chairs; they’re furniture; they’re automobiles, they’re pensions. They’re not kids,” he said, declining to consider Dexter’s sentimental value as he divided the couple’s assets.

Sounds like Judge Tomasello was bitten when he was young.
The appellate court was able to sniff out the weaknesses in Judge Tomasello’s argument:

[T]he appeals panel said that Dexter was like “heirlooms, family treasures and works of art” whose “special subjective value” should be factored in by the court. Money damages were not adequate compensation.

Houseman’s ex-husband, Eric Dare, knows all about the special value of the dog. He seems to be using the animal to get back at his ex-wife. Dare, a police officer, initially relinquished the dog to his ex-wife. But then Doreen got her grove back:

But the arrangement soured nine months later, Houseman said, when she began dating. She dropped Dexter off at Dare’s house in February 2007 before leaving on a trip, but when she returned in March, she said Dare refused to give the dog back. She said he told her, “You’ll never see him again.”

Meanwhile, Dare’s lawyer is nearly apoplectic about the reversal:

Dare’s attorney, James M. Carter, scoffed at the notion that courts should get bogged down in animal “custody battles.” He said nasty litigation over dogs will wreak havoc in Family Court if judges must now add that detail to their responsibilities.
“As far as the legal community goes, many attorneys realize this would be the first step down a slippery slope. A ridiculous amount of time would be spent on these issues,” Carter said.

Slippery slope? Hardly. Courts can just apply the same birghtline rule that society uses already. Cute, furry mammals that can talk in Disney movies are protected. Everything else is dinner.
Case of puppy love: Ex-couple goes to court [Philadelphia Inquirer]

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