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The Animal Legal Defense Fund says a Hillsboro-area horse deserves damages from an abusive former owner.

COURTESY PHOTO - This horse, now named 'Justice,' was found neglected on a property in the Cornelius area by authorities in 2017. The former owner pleaded guilty to misdemeanor animal abuse, but the Animal Legal Defense Fund is suing for further damages, arguing that the horse has a right to sue for ongoing medical bills just like a human can.

The curious court case of the horse named Justice isn't done yet, the Animal Legal Defense Fund says.

After the Oregon Court of Appeals this week upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against his former owner, the legal fund representing the horse said it would take the case to the Oregon Supreme Court.

The case began back in 2017, when the horse — then named Shadow — was found severely emaciated on a property in the Laurel area, southwest of Hillsboro. Court documents said the horse was 300 pounds underweight, his genitals had been damaged by frostbite, and he suffered from lice and rain rot.

Neighbors in the 34000 block of Southwest Firdale Road called the Oregon Horse Rescue, who arranged to have Shadow brought to a Troutdale facility, where the horse was cared for.

The previous owner, Gwendolyn Vercher, pleaded guilty to a first-degree animal neglect misdemeanor. California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) also filed a civil lawsuit against her.

At some point between the animal's rescue and the new suit being filed, the horse's name was changed to Justice.

The new lawsuit seeks at least $100,000 in damages for medical bills, as well as additional damages for the horse's suffering. It's one of the first lawsuits of its kind, providing a legal test of whether an animal has the same rights to sue as a human.

So far, the Washington County Circuit Court and Oregon Court of Appeals have both ruled that the horse cannot sue for damages. Washington County Circuit Judge John Knowles said in 2018 that it was beyond the scope of his county courtroom to establish such a unique precedent.

"There are profound implications of a judicial finding that a horse, or any non-human animal for that matter, is a legal entity that has the legal right to assert a claim in a court of law," Knowles wrote in his opinion letter. "Such a finding would likely lead to a flood of lawsuits whereby non-human animals could assert claims we now reserve just for humans and human creations such as business and other entities."

"This court, however, is unable to take that leap," he concluded, saying that it is up to an appellate court judge or the Oregon Legislature to change the law to allow a non-human animal to sue for damages.

While the Oregon Supreme Court has previously ruled that animals should be considered victims in cruelty cases, no court in the country has ever ruled that animals should have the same rights as humans to seek damages in civil lawsuits.

However, the ALDF argues that extent of Justice's injuries and emotional trauma means he continues to need a high level of care. Not only is this care costly, but the group says it has kept Justice from finding a new home.

"As a result of neglect, Justice will require ongoing medical care and special costs for the rest of his life," said the organization's executive director, Stephen Wells, in a press release issued after the appeals court ruling.

"Oregon law recognizes that animals themselves can be victims of animal cruelty," he continued. "Justice is a victim — why should anyone but his abuser be responsible for paying medical bills and other costs caused by her cruelty?"

The ALDF says that it will appeal the case to the Oregon Supreme Court. It also says that any damages awarded through the lawsuit will be set into a legal trust "established exclusively to provide for (Justice's) well-being."


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