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A New Jersey judge, following case law in nine states that allows suits for intentional infliction of emotional distress over injury to an animal, refused last Monday to dismiss a claim that a horse-transport service and riding stable injured a horse so badly the teen-age owner contemplated suicide. Superior Court Judge Ronald Graves said a reasonable jury could find that the carrier’s and the stable’s actions were reckless, extreme and outrageous and that they proximately caused severe harm to the teenager. “From a fairness perspective, there is no logical reason to insulate defendants from liability for the consequences of their conduct,” Graves wrote in Morrisroe v. Moriarty, L-600-01. The judge said that allowing the claim to go forward was “compatible with the dual objectives of our tort system: the just compensation of injured parties and the deterrence of future wrongful conduct.” In 2000, when their daughter Jaimie was 12, plaintiffs Lisabeth and Frank Morrisroe, then residing in Indiana, bought Max, a show-quality hunter jumper, for $20,000. Later that year, they moved to Sparta and arranged for Horsein’ Around, a Tennessee-based carrier, to move Max to On Course Riding Academy, a boarding stable in Lafayette. On arrival, Max allegedly hurt his lower left hind leg when he was forced to jump three feet from the trailer to the ground. During the next year, On Course failed to follow veterinary treatment protocols, over-exercised Max, rode him in deep snow, whipped him over jumps and fitted him with the wrong size horse shoes, according to the Morrisroes. Max wound up chronically lame and had to be put out to pasture or destroyed. At that point, Jaimie, “said goodbye to her horse and planned her suicide,” the suit alleges. The horse was put out to pasture. Graves based his ruling on the public policy of deterring cruelty to animals, as reflected in statutory law. He referred to A-3074, enacted on Jan. 9, which increased criminal and civil penalties for certain animal-cruelty offenses. With no New Jersey case on point, Graves found persuasive case law in nine states, including Pennsylvania and New York, which allowed actions for emotional distress over death or injury to a pet or companion animal. In 2001, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in Brown v. Muhlenberg, that Pennsylvania would allow an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against a police officer who shot the plaintiff’s dog after it strayed out of the yard. The closest New Jersey case is Hyland v. Borras, in which the Appellate Division, recognizing the subjective value of a pet’s relationship with a human, allowed the owner of a Shih Tzu worth $500 to recover $2,500 in veterinary expenses from the owner of a bulldog that attacked it. That court noted, however, that it was not faced with “the more difficult question of whether and when a plaintiff should, if ever, be awarded non-economic damages for such a loss.” The day after Graves released his opinion, legislators introduced A-2411, which would create a civil right of action for loss of companionship and emotional distress against someone convicted under any of five animal cruelty laws. The bill, which has 29 backers, would cap damages for loss of companionship at $20,000. Paul Abramo, a solo practitioner who represents the Morrisroes, calls the pending bill a good development even though it would not apply directly to his case. Gary Francione, a professor at Rutgers Law School-Newark and the author of several books on animal rights law, dismisses the Morrisroe ruling as “window dressing” that does nothing to change the status of animals as property. But animal rights lawyer William Strazza hopes the ruling will bolster his clients’ position in a case pending in federal court in Trenton. In Harris v. White, a family sued the Asbury Park Police Department last year after an officer fatally shot their dog in front of them. The suit includes an emotional distress claim as well as a civil rights claim, which allowed the town to remove it to federal court. It is assigned to U.S. District Judge Garrett Brown Jr. Horsein’ Around’s lawyer, Maryjean Ellis, an associate at DeYoe Heissenbuttel, and George Surgent, a solo practitioner representing horse trainer Chris Schaeffner, declines comment. Virginia Barrett of Barrett Lazar & Lincoln, who represents On Course and its owner Katherine Moriarty, did not return a call seeking comment. This story originally appeared in the New Jersey Law Journal , a publication of American Lawyer Media.

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