“After more than eight years of litigation, lawyers for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will appear in federal court this week to square off against a handful of animal welfare organizations that have filed suit against the circus alleging that it routinely violates federal law by abusing its elephants. The case is a major test for the reach of the Endangered Species Act, which for the first time is being used by private citizens to try to influence the care of animals already in captivity.” If the complainants, led by the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), succeed in the creative effort to reshape the Endangered Species Act into a federal animal welfare statute, lawsuits in other areas are likely to follow [Legal Times]
Blogger Rogier van Bakel is furious (via Balko (h/t Slim)) at his local SPCA because they would rather put a dog to sleep than place it with his family with small children. See, they’re worried about getting sued if the dog bites one of the children. van Bakel can’t believe it: he’s even willing to sign a waiver!
His anger is misdirected. The SPCA didn’t kill his dog; trial lawyers did. Courts’ failure to recognize the right of parties to contract out of excessive liability means that the SPCA has to protect itself against attorneys, and can only do so if they avoid situations where they might be sued. With 20/20 hindsight, the would-be John Edwards will say to a jury: “The SPCA has placed other dogs that bit small children and has been sued for it, yet they continue to place dogs with small children!”, and demand punitive damages. Between judges who won’t recognize the right of contract when it interferes with a lawyer’s paycheck, and legislative efforts to prevent parties from agreeing to contract out of the high costs of the liability system, von Bakel cannot distinguish himself from the families who would blame the SPCA if a dog-attack occurs. The offer of a waiver does not help: the SPCA can’t afford to take the risk that an adoptive family will renege on its agreement not to sue if the dog attacks a child.
Now, perhaps we as a society do not want shelters to place animals in homes with small children. Or perhaps we do. But shouldn’t that be a decision that rests with a legislature, rather than random chance and a jury? But when a jury has the power to exact uncapped damages, an SPCA has to anticipate the regulation through litigation.
van Bakel and Balko direct readers to other organizations that have not yet been saddled with a lawsuit demanding such practices, but they will surely follow in the SPCA’s footsteps when the lawyers get a hold of them. The long-term solution is to insist on elected officials who will appoint judges who respect freedom of contract, and who will pass tort reform measures that put common-sense limits on the power of courts to interfere with every-day activity. Even now in Congress is debating S. 1782, which would put further limits on the power of consumers to opt out of expensive litigation, and receive the benefits of lower costs and increased choice; while President Bush will veto such legislation, an Obama administration with a Democratic Congress would surely vote it into law.
For more on the Congressional and trial-lawyer campaign to reduce consumer choice, see the Overlawyered arbitration section.
Apologies to Mr. van Bakel for the misspelling of his name in the original version of the post.