Shelter & rescue law & liability

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Presented at the American Pets Alive No-Kill Conference 2014.

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Shelter & rescue law & liability

  1. 1. Shelter & Rescue Law & Liability American Pets Alive Conference Austin, Texas February 2014
  2. 2. Topics Covered: •Liability basics •Animal law case studies •Lessons and strategies for shelters and rescues
  3. 3. Disclaimer •Legal information, not legal advice •The law is different in every state, and is often different in jurisdictions within the same state •Always consult a local attorney before implementing legal strategies. •Legal definitions: Blacks Law Dictionary (6th Edition)
  4. 4. Basics: Suit v. Liability •Suit: ―[A]ny proceeding by one person . . . against another . . . in a court of law in which the plaintiff pursues . . . the remedy which the law affords him.‖ •Liability: ―[C]ondition of being responsible for a possible or actual loss, penalty, evil, expense, or burden.‖
  5. 5. Basics: Causes of Action •Negligence: ―[T]he failure to use such care as a reasonably prudent and careful person would use under similar circumstances.‖ •Strict Liability: ―Liability without fault.‖ Usually by statute, but can be by common law. •Premises Liability: Subset of negligence dealing with liability for physical surroundings (buildings, floors, etc.); failure to warn or remedy. Categories: negligent activity / premises defect
  6. 6. Basics: Elements of a Claim •Duty •Breach of Duty •Causation •Injury/Damages
  7. 7. Basics: Defending a Suit •No duty •No breach of duty •No causation •No injury or damages •Affirmative Defenses (e.g., Immunity or necessity)
  8. 8. Liability after Adoption
  9. 9. Frank v. Animal Haven, Inc., 2013 WL 3064648 (N.Y.A.D. 2013) Facts: • Non-profit shelter adopts out dog; dog bites third-party, who sues animal shelter. • Adoption contract (1) contains release of liability; (2) final transfer of ownership; but (3) reserved right to take dog back if contractual terms violated. Held: • Under New York dog-bite statute, shelter has no liability because it was not the dog‘s owner. • Note: Court not convinced that reservation of right to take back dog prevented transfer of ownership.
  10. 10. Dutka v. Cassady, 2012 WL 3641635 (Conn. Super. 2012) (unpublished) Facts: •Rescue group adopts out dog; dog bites third party, who sues rescue group. Held: •No Strict Liability: No liability under dog-bite statute because rescue group was not ―owner‖ or ―keeper‖ of dog. •And no general negligence duty regarding dogs owned by third parties.
  11. 11. Miles v. Rich, 347 S.W.3d 477 (Mo. App. 2011) Facts: •Humane Society of Mo. adopts out dog; dog bites third party, who sues owner. •Owner turns around and sues Humane Society. Held: •No liability against Humane Society because it ―did not own, possess, harbor, or control the dog when it bit Ms. Miles.‖
  12. 12. Galgano v. Town of North Hempstead, 840 N.Y.S.2d 794 (N.Y. App. 2007) Facts: •Town shelter adopts out dog, who bites individual; individual sues shelter for adopting out dangerous dog. Held: •No liability under dog-bite statute because plaintiff did not prove that shelter knew or should have known of dog‘s dangerous propensity.
  13. 13. Menches v. Inglewood Humane Society, 51 Cal.App.2d 415 (Cal. App. 1942) Facts: • Inglewood Humane Society adopts out dog, who bites adopter; adopter sues Humane Society. Held: • No liability because Humane Society no longer owned the dog. • But: Court wrote that plaintiff might have been able to sue for ―breach of warranty or for fraud in inducing plaintiff to purchase the dog by making statements as to its qualities without having sufficient knowledge to warrant the declarations.‖
  14. 14. Volunteer Liability
  15. 15. Brown v. Northwoods Animal Shelter, 2011 WL 5072600 (Mich. App. 2011) Facts: •Volunteer worker slips and falls at animal shelter; sues shelter for personal injuries •Note: this is a premises-liability case Held: •No liability because volunteer had signed waiver of liability.
  16. 16. Fire Ins. Exchange v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 610 N.W.2d 98 (Wis. Ct. App. 2000) Facts: • Dog owned by third party bites 12-year-old child volunteering at Rock County Humane Society; parents sue dog‘s owners, whose insurance company settles. • Insurance company then turns around and sues Humane Society. Held: • Humane Society could be sued as ―keeper‖ of the dog even though it was not the dog‘s owner. • And: Parent‘s signature on liability waiver may not defeat claim because shelter may be deemed to have violated child labor laws.
  17. 17. Off-Site Adoptions
  18. 18. Claps v. Animal Haven, Inc., 825 N.Y.S.2d 125 (N.Y. App. 2006) Facts: •Dog available for adoption outside Petco bites Petco customer walking by; customer sues animal shelter. Held: •No liability under New York dog-bite statute because shelter did not know or have reason to know of dog‘s dangerous propensities.
  19. 19. Pet Custody Disputes
  20. 20. Lamare v. North Country Animal League, 743 A.2d 598 (VT 1999) Facts: • Dog impounded as stray held for 9-day hold period, then transferred to non-profit shelter, then adopted out. • Prior owner (who had been looking for dog) finds out, is denied adoption of own dog by non-profit shelter, then sues non-profit shelter after dog adopted out to someone else. Held: • No liability for public-policy reasons; non-profit shelter gained complete ownership of the dog after hold period.
  21. 21. Haines v. Hampshire County Comm’n, 607 S.E.2d 828 (W.V. 2004) Facts: • Dog impounded as stray held for 5-day hold period, then adopted out • Prior owner (who had been looking for dog) finds out, sues County. Held: • No liability for public-policy reasons; liability would render animal-shelter laws void. • But: Court could not order return of dog because no longer in shelter‘s custody.
  22. 22. Lira v. Greater Houston German Shepherd Dog Rescue, Inc., Cause No. 2013-03944, 334th Judicial District of Harris County (2013) Facts: • Dog impounded, held for hold period, then transferred to rescue group. • Prior owner finds out, sues rescue group. Held: • Dog belongs to prior owner • Hold period expiration did not transfer ownership to shelter or rescue. • Rescue held to have ―converted‖ the dog (i.e., stolen it) • Rescue ordered to return dog (in lieu of damages)
  23. 23. What should be the law on ownership after hold period? If Lira is right– that hold-period expiration does not transfer ownership: •Prior owner would remain liable to third parties for dog bites/injuries at shelter or even at rescue group or beyond (if dog transferred after hold period) •Shelter or rescue could be held liable to owner for spay/neuter, vaccination, or death of dog.
  24. 24. Feger v. Warwick Animal Shelter, 814 N.Y.S.2d 700 (NY App. 2006) Facts: •Prized show cat allegedly stolen, surrendered to animal shelter and adopted out to new owner. •Prior owner finds out, sues animal shelter Held: •Suit can go forward if plaintiff proves shelter knew that cat was hers and adopted it out anyway.
  25. 25. (Miscellaneous)
  26. 26. Take Me Home Rescue v. Luri, 208 Cal.App.4th 1342 (Cal. App. 2012) Facts: • Dog foster (in foster-to-adopt situation) refuses to return dog or allow it to be spayed; animal shelter threatens to terminate rescue group‘s abilities to rescue. • Written foster agreement makes clear rescue group owns animal, but does not require foster to return animal for spay/neuter. • But foster agrees that there were oral agreements to spay/neuter dog. Held: • Foster ordered to return dog to rescue or have her spayed. • Notes: Foster contract should have been better written; should have included spay/neuter requirement.
  27. 27. City of Elgin v. Reagan, 2009 WL 483344 (Tex. App.—Austin 2009, no pet.) Facts: •Dog adopted after adopter told it was ―good with kids‖ •On afternoon of adoption, dog bites adopter‘s child •Owners sue City of Elgin for adopting out dangerous dog Held: •Claim barred by sovereign immunity.
  28. 28. Can a shelter be sued for failing to impound a dangerous dog prior to dog bite? No: • New York: Spiegler v. School Dist. of City of Rochelle, 241 N.Y.S.2d 967 (Sup.Crt. Westchester 1962) • California: County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court, 209 Cal.App.4th 543 (Cal. App. 2012) Yes: • Tennessee: Chase v. City of Memphis, 971 S.W.2d 380 (Tenn. 1998) • Washington: Champagne v. Spokane Humane Society, 737 P.2d 1279 (Wash. App. 1987)
  29. 29. Strategies to Reduce Risk
  30. 30. Strategies for Reducing Risk: The Three ―Cs‖ 1. Conduct: incorporation, policies & protocols 2. Contract: liability waivers and foster/adoption agreements 3. CYA: insurance
  31. 31. Conduct: Incorporation •Incorporate •Incorporation is a state government filing •Corporate fiction: Incorporation dramatically reduces chances for individual liability, transfers risk to corporate entity rather than individuals. •Incidental benefit: required to apply for federal tax-exemption status (501(c)(3)).
  32. 32. Conduct: Adoptions •Observe/Document/Disclose •Act like you‘re under oath: tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to prospective adopters. •Record and disclose everything you know and learn about an animal: intake forms, employee/volunteer experiences, behavioral expert evaluations (where available) •Disclose: give adopters a copy of your recordings (and keep a copy for you). •Note: Disclosure is not limited to behavioral information; also disclose all medical information (illnesses, injuries, vaccinations, symptoms, etc.)
  33. 33. Conduct: Adoptions Warranties/Promises/Predictions •Don‘t make predictions, warranties, or promises regarding the health or temperament of an animal. •Understand the key difference between facts (which you can and should disclose) and predictions/warranties (which you should not make): • Fact: ―animal lived in household with kids and prior owner reported that pet behaved very well around children‖ • Prediction/warranty: animal is ―good with kids‖ or ―dog is great with other dogs and cats‖
  34. 34. Conduct: Adoptions Hypothetical: • Customer with 12-year-old child adopts dog. • Dog‘s website listing said ―not recommended for home with children under 10‖ • Dog bites 12-year-old child; family sues shelter for misrepresentation. Questions: • Is the shelter‘s conduct okay? • Was this a fact or a prediction/warranty? • Is there a difference between saying ―not recommended for home with children under 10‖ and ―safe for kids over 10‖? Lesson: Don‘t make representations/warranties. Stick to the facts.
  35. 35. Conduct: Adoptions Premises • Warn or make safe • Provide warnings or cure defects in physical premises (wet spot in floor, tripping hazard, etc.) • Warn or prevent/limit contact with behaviorally or medically challenged animals (or both). • Inspect your premises for defects: check gates, locks, bathrooms, kennels, etc. • Separate intake areas (where unknown animals may be) from customer-service and adoption areas. • Keep animals separated if you have spay/neuter/ vaccine/microchip clinic. • Eliminate blind corners, opportunities for surprise interactions.
  36. 36. Conduct: Policies & Protocols •Written policy protocols for employees, volunteers, and board members. •Provide manuals and require signatures •Mandatory safety training for all employees and volunteers. •Mandatory employment-law training for all employees and volunteers (e.g., sexual harassment).
  37. 37. Contract: Waivers and Agreements Adoption Agreements •Disclose all behavioral and medical notes and observations; provide copies to adopter and have adopter sign acknowledgement. •Require adopter to (1) waive all liability against rescue/shelter; and (2) indemnify the rescue/shelter if it is sued for any conduct related to the adopted animal. [Use ALL CAPS or underscore and bold in liability provisions.] •State that animals are inherently unpredictable and may subject adopter to health and safety risks.
  38. 38. Contract: Waivers and Agreements Adoption Agreements •Expressly disclaim any oral promises, warranties, or agreements; state that written contract represents entirety of contractual relationship (warning: make sure everything you need is in contract). •Make clear that ownership of animal transfers to adopter. •Consider arbitration/mediation requirement.
  39. 39. Contract: Waivers and Agreements Foster Agreement •Disclose all behavioral and medical notes and observations. •Require foster to waive all liability against rescue/shelter •Make clear that animals are unpredictable and may subject foster to health or safety risk. •State that foster agrees to be subject to any additional, unlisted rules required by rescue/shelter
  40. 40. Contract: Waivers and Agreements Foster Agreement • Make clear that animal belongs solely to rescue/shelter, that rescue/shelter has sole authority to make decisions for animal, and that rescue/shelter has right to take back the animal at any time for any reason. • Make clear who is responsible for costs associated with animal-- food, shelter, medical care, etc. • Require animals to be on leash/contained/in-home during fostering. • Require fosters to systematically report on health or behavioral incidents or concerns. • Recommend that fosters keep foster animals separated from household pets.
  41. 41. Contract: Waivers and Agreements Volunteer Agreement • Require volunteer to (1) waive all liability against rescue/shelter, and to (2) indemnify rescue/shelter for any injury caused by volunteer. • Make clear that animals are unpredictable and may subject volunteer to health or safety risk. • State that volunteer agrees to be subject to any additional, unlisted rules required by rescue/shelter. • Require volunteers to systematically report to rescue/shelter on health or behavioral incidents or concerns. • Safest practices: adults only
  42. 42. CYA: Insurance •Workers comp: injury to employees •General: operations, volunteers, premises, etc.; make sure off-site adoptions, fostering, etc. also covered. •D&O: Board of directors and officers •Auto: Make sure rescue/shelter autos are covered and employees‘ personal autos when performing rescue/shelter business •Events: May need supplemental insurance for events.
  43. 43. Additional Resources •Best Friends Animal Society‘s ―Insurance: Covering Your Tail‖ •Animal Farm Foundation‘s ―Liability ‗Hysteria‘‖

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