Friday, July 20, 2007

Pets, as Property in PA, Need Planning

With the enactment of the PA Uniform Trust Act, Pennsylvanians owning pets received a legal bonus: the ability to create a statutory "Trust for a Non-Human Beneficiary", more commonly known as a "pet trust".

Just before adoption of the
PA UTA, I wrote a detailed article, "Personal and Estate Planning for Pennsylvanians Owning Pets", which was published in the Pennsylvania Bar Association Quarterly, in its July, 2006, issue. The Quarterly is the scholarly publication of the Pennsylvania Bar Association that began publication in 1929, and that is distributed to all members of the PBA.

In the article, I noted the importance of companion animals in the lives of Americans, more specifically in the lives of young, elderly, & disabled persons. I examined prior Pennsylvania court decisions regarding pets as "property", and considered the need in Pennsylvania for more predictable legal devices for pet owners to make protective arrangements taking effect
during an owner's lifetime, upon an owner's disability, and after an owner's death.

Through the assistance of Rebecca L. Safford, then a second-year student at Washington & Lee University School of Law, the article reviewed the laws of all states on the issue of segregated funds for the benefit of pets. I reviewed the benefits of a "pet trust"; and I wished for a statutorily-authorized "pet trust" law in Pennsylvania too.

Just after that issue of the Quarterly was distributed, the Legislature adopted, and the Governor then signed into law, Act 98 of 2006 -- the
PA UTA -- and thereby granted my wish! The ability to create a "pet trust" took effect on "PA UTA Day", that is, on November 6, 2006.

Thereafter, the article was noted by the Real Property, Probate & Trust Law Section, of the American Bar Association, in its "
Keeping Current" listing for Nov/Dec, 2006, assembled by Editor Gerry W. Beyer, a Professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, in Lubbock, Texas.

Pennsylvania. In What the General Practitioner Needs to Know About Pennsylvania Animal Law (Part II)—Personal and Estate Planning for Pennsylvanians Owning Pets, 77 Pa. Bar Ass’n Q., July 2006, at 107, Neil E. Hendershot provides a detailed discussion of how pet owners may best provide for the care of their animals.
After I had sent the article to Professor Beyer upon publication, he & I became occasional "pen pals". We periodically exchange email regarding the blogs that we write. He authors the highly-esteemed & widely-read Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog.

He is on vacation now, but I must tell him about a series of important "pet" cases, deriving from one set of facts, in Pennsylvania.

On July 11, 2007, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, through a panel, issued a decision & opinion in
Snead v. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Pennsylvania. The appeal developed after the SPCA, as defendant, was found liable for euthanizing dogs belonging to the plaintiff, Laila Snead, and was assessed damages of $154,926.37, including $100,000 in punitive damages.

Early in the opinion, the three-judge panel noted:

[T]he facts involving the condition of the dogs at the heart of this case are very disturbing. Although we will repeat several times infra that under Pennsylvania law, the animals are considered property, this court clearly recognizes that dogs as pets hold a unique place in many people’s lives as friend, companion, and family member.
A Humane Society officer had investigated a charge of animal abuse, found dogs in a degraded condition, and removed them from Snead's house. Dog-fighting charges were filed by the officer, but were dropped by the district attorney, so that the dogs should have been made available for return to Snead. Instead, the dogs were euthanized by the SPCA.

Snead then sued the SPCA in a magistrate court, and obtained a judgment for $8,450, the alleged value of the dogs. The SPCA appealed to the court of common pleas. Snead responded with civil claims based on trespass, conversion, negligence, and violations of 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983.

The case was transferred to compulsory arbitration; and the arbitrators entered their report finding in Snead’s favor on all counts. The SPCA appealed that award; and the case proceeded to a jury trial. But, after Snead presented testimony as plaintiff, the SPCA moved for a "directed verdict" in favor of it, as defendant. The trial court judge granted that motion based upon the conclusion that, under the pleadings & the facts presented, Snead did not have any sustainable legal causes of action for a jury to decide.

That ruling was appealed, and a panel of the Superior Court held that Snead could not sustain a Section 1983 claim for violation of her Fourth Amendment
right to privacy based on the warrantless search and seizure of the dogs. See: Snead v. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Pennsylvania, No. 402 EDA 2004, unpublished memorandum (Pa.Super. filed February 1, 2005). However, the remaining claims were remanded for a trial, where a jury could consider the conflicting evidence.

In that trial, the jury rendered a verdict for the judgment noted above, which then was appealed.

The Superior Court held that Snead's claims of conversion (taking of property unlawfully) and negligence (in the handling of the animals) could be asserted against the SPCA. It could not rely on the doctrine of sovereign immunity or PA's Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, for immunity. The Court also addressed Snead's ability to press other claims.

For pet owners, the important language is found in the Court's references to "pets as property" and the causes of action that can derive from such "property". Here are various relevant quotes:

  • [W]e find that Snead had a significant property interest in her dogs. As stated [above], Pennsylvania law considers dogs as property. In addition, although there was evidence the animals were unhealthy and suffered from neglect, Snead testified at length concerning her love and devotion to the animals and her efforts to nurse them back to health, and we must credit this testimony as the jury apparently did.

  • [There] was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that SPCA had inadequate procedures/policies in place to safeguard Snead’s property interests in the dogs.

  • Snead proved actual damages by presenting expert testimony concerning the value of the dogs.

  • SPCA deprived Snead of her use and possession of the dogs, which are considered property in Pennsylvania, when it euthanized them.
The Superior Court panel reversed the award of punitive damages, however:

[W]e agree the evidence was sufficient for the jury to find SPCA was negligent; however, the evidence does not support a conclusion that Spencer and/or Beltram acted with intent or malice in euthanizing Snead’s dogs. * * *

Even accepting Snead’s testimony as true and resolving all reasonable inferences in her favor, we cannot say that SPCA acted in conscious disregard of a risk of harm to Snead when it euthanized the animals. Therefore, we reverse the award of $100,000 in punitive damages and will re-enter judgment accordingly.
Finally, there was the issue of attorneys fees expended by Snead in pursing remedy under her other, valid, Section 1983 claim:
[T]he proper inquiry was whether Snead proved all of the material elements of her cause of action and demonstrated a compensable injury. * * *

Since Snead established a constitutional violation and received $54,000 in compensatory damages, she was successful in proving her case against SPCA and therefore should have recovered reasonable attorney’s fees.
Far preferable to such litigation is proper advance planning for companion animals.

I will address that topic in a further posting, when I'll talk more about "pet trusts", Professor Beyer, and a course on planning for pets that he & I now plan for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute.

Update: 07/23/07:

Last Friday, July 20, 2007, I received an email message from Attorney Richard H. Elliott, in Doylestown, PA. Dick represented the PA SPCA, as defendant, in the first jury trial,
"at which Judge DiBona granted a directed verdict in our favor."

He made further comments, some of which I quote:
With respect, I would like to correct you on one point.

We filed an appeal from a Municipal Court award of some $4,200 to Snead at which hearing PSPCA was not represented and the case was referred for compulsory arbitration on Snead's complaint alleging civil rights violations, among other counts.

After a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court panel heard about five hours of testimony, it deliberated for less than ten minutes and came in with a finding for PSPCA on all counts.

Snead's counsel then appealed that finding to the Common Pleas Court and sought a jury trial. Snead appealed the grant of directed verdict in our favor to the Superior Court which remanded in part.

It was necessary for health reasons for us to bring in new trial counsel to deal with remand on the limited issues delineated by the appellate court. Cross appeals were heard by the Superior Court and it is [that] opinion which is the subject of your blog. * * *
Dick further expressed some personal insights & opinions about the case, which I will not post, since these do not bear on the intended "educational" nature of this Blog.

He concluded with these final comments:
Thanks for doing a great job in keeping us all informed.

Heard you speak at the first PBI Animal Law program. I was on the agenda late in the day at that program. [I] have used some of your materials in a presentation to the Orphans Court Section of the Bucks County Bar Association on trust instruments for the benefit of pets.
If any reader wishes to pose questions or comments to Dick about the case, you may contact him at Elliott & Magee, in Doylestown (215-230-9900).

Update: 07/25/07:

For my follow-up posting on this topic, as promised, see:
Learning About "Estate Planning for Pets" (07/25/07).