More Florida lawyers are flocking to the burgeoning field of animal law.
When Jacksonville estate lawyer Randy Coleman worked out his own trust several years ago, he left complex instructions, named a trustee and put aside a tidy sum for his heirs: Nine magnificent parrots, including an African Gray and a Gold McCaw that chant the University of Florida's "orange-blue" cheer to each other
across the living room.
"They're teenagers. My wife and I are in our 50s, and they have a life expectancy of 50 to 80 years," Coleman says. "For us, it was a serious matter of planning for our children."
Coleman is one of a growing number of lawyers in the state and around the nation who specialize in the broad spectrum of animal law. He has written up trusts for dogs, cats and horses. Other Florida animal-law experts have filed for dog custody and pooch-imony in divorce cases; sued veterinarians for emotional damages after a pet died; fought homeowners associations when a fat Fido tipped the scales above the association's weight limits; even won pet-product liability cases.
Interest in the field has surged in the United States in recent years, says Joyce Tischler, founding director of the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. In 2000, she says, there were nine animal-law courses offered in law schools around the nation, one journal devoted to the topic and no state Bar committees. Today there are 80 courses, including at Florida Coastal School of Law, Florida State University, Nova Southeastern, St. Thomas University, the University of Florida and the University of Miami. Three legal journals and two case-law textbooks cover the field. And 12 state Bar associations, including Florida's, have formed committees devoted to animal law.
"Most people you ask will tell you they love their pets like a member of the family," says Jennifer Dietz of Ullman, Bursa, Hoffman & Ragano in Tampa, chairwoman of the Florida Bar's Animal Law Committee, formed in 2003. "The law seems to be following society's evolving ideas about animals and how they're treated."
Dietz, Coleman and other Florida lawyers who worked to launch the committee first found themselves in the doghouse with colleagues who regarded animal law as frivolous or trivial. Some viewed the animal lawyers as animal-rights activists who would use their committee to politicize issues such as the 2002 constitutional amendment that banned pig-gestation crates on Florida hog farms.
But in time, Dietz says, fellow attorneys came to see how serious the legal issues involved were -- and how pertinent to Florida: The state's large population of seniors means more Floridians rely on pets for companionship -- sometimes pets are elders' only friends. Meanwhile, Florida's fast-growing population and its encroachment into the countryside can result in conflict where urban and rural areas meet; 4-H kids have had to give up pigs in southwest Florida, for example, when new neighbors complained. Hurricane evacuations invariably spur angst and argument over the place of pets in shelters. Ocala's thoroughbred industry has drawn specialists in equine law. The state also sees its share of animal-cruelty cases, from animal hoarding to puppy mills to sexual assaults against dogs.
When it comes to the statutes on the books and the evolution of animal case law in Florida, experts say the state ranks a little better than average. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which ranks states based on the strength of their animal-protection laws, puts Florida in the top tier -- but not among the best. For example, Florida has a felony provision for animal cruelty but could improve by imposing mandatory bans on pet ownership after a pet cruelty conviction or requiring vets to report owners if the vets suspect cruelty, says Stephen Otto, legislative director at the fund.
Florida is known for one of the earliest legal precedents in which damages for emotional distress were awarded over the death of a pet. In the 1964 case La Porte vs. Associated Independents Inc., a garbage man hurled a trash can at a barking dachshund named Heidi that was tied up out of reach, killing the pet. The Florida Supreme Court upheld Florida's 2nd District Court ruling that the dog owner's mental anguish was properly considered in awarding damages against the hauler.
These days, Florida animal lawyers such as Marcy LaHarte of West Palm Beach are trying to convince judges that non-economic damages are appropriate in cases of negligence as well as malicious cruelty. In several ongoing veterinary malpractice cases, LaHarte argues that Floridians whose pets are negligently killed deserve more than fair-market value, particularly as the vet-med industry earns more money from people who consider pets family. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Americans spent $9.4 billion on veterinary care last year.
Non-economic damages in vet malpractice cases, says LaHarte, "would provide incentives for veterinarians to be more careful, and they would make the victims whole. Nobody who has ever loved an animal would argue that the dog or cat who's been an important part of your life and your family is worth only replacement value." (In the case of a mutt or a pound rescue, that's zilch.)
Two oft-cited cases in the 3rd District in Miami allowed for emotional-distress damages against vets. But a 2004 case in the 1st District in Tallahassee did not, agreeing with a New York ruling that, "while pet owners may consider pets as part of the family, allowing recovery for these types of cases would place an unnecessary burden on the ever-burgeoning caseload of courts in resolving serious tort claims for individuals."
Five states are considering statutes that would allow courts to consider non-economic damages such as emotional distress or loss of companionship in the negligent death of a pet. Tennessee is the first state with such a law, which limits the awards to $4,000. Dietz, the animal-law committee chair from Tampa, predicts the Florida Legislature may eventually have to weigh in.
"My dog is a mutt," says Dietz, who, like many animal lawyers, has a menagerie at home: Dogs George and Buddy and cats Little Biddy Kiss, Scooby and Miss Kitty. "But no one can say that she's not a real part of my family -- or that she doesn't have intrinsic value."