AIRhead Legal Review

AIRhead Legal Review

Improbable theories, judgments and interpretations

by Howard Zaharoff

Animal Rights and Wrongs

Einstein said, on several occasions, that God does not play dice — in other words, that the universe operates according to rules. This proposition raises the philosophical issue of whether the world is wholly deterministic, which appears to leave no room for human responsibility, or if instead humans retain freedom of action, which would leave humans accountable for their actions, as well as for other occurrences within their domain of control.

More even than scientists, courts constantly address this issue. Two recent cases tackle the problem in the context of the animal kingdom. In one case, a man who was attacked by a polar bear at an Air Force radar station sued the federal government. The $1M suit claims that the U.S. government was negligent in not making the camp (Lawyers Weekly USA, 8/28/95). This plaintiff apparently assumes that people, and their embodiment in popular government, should be held responsible for the acts of polar bears. Query: does this leave room to hold ursus maritimus itself responsible for its acts? A second case addresses this issue.

The second case concerned a bicyclist who was so frightened when a small dog ran at him that he fell and got injured. He sued the dog’s owners under a statute imposing strict liability for a dog’s "vicious or mischievous" acts. The owners argued that the statute remedied dog bites and attacks; but the New Hampshire Supreme Court found this canine’s behavior "mischievous" under the plain meaning of the statute. Result: a $190,000 verdict for the plaintiff (Lawyers Weekly USA, 8/12/95). Thus, this plaintiff, as well as the legislature that enacted the law and the judges who applied it, apparently believed that people should be accountable for their pets’ vicious acts. Since the statute imposed no penalty on the pets themselves, one assumes that the legislature did not believe that mischievous pets themselves should be held accountable.

These cases also remind us that, in a deterministic world, people must be careful both in encountering animals and in owning or controlling animals because, if they are not careful, someone might get injured, and, if someone does get injured, that someone might attempt to impose liability on someone else and, if that effort is successful, it can cost that someone else $190,000. Plus attorneys’ fees.

Dogged Trademarks

Animals also sometimes appear in a more positive role than the above cases indicate, for example, as parts of trademarks. Thus, one company has applied to register the mark "Dogs Against Drugs/ Dogs Against Crime Providing Dogs That Serve, Protect and Detect" in connection with charitable fundraising services "to aid law enforcement agencies in the purchase of narcotics dogs." However, no exclusive right was claimed in the phrase "Providing Dogs That Serve, Protect and Detect," so other charitable organizations are free to exclaim that they too provide dogs that serve, protect and detect when they help police acquire narcotics dogs.

Copyright © 1997 The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). All rights reserved.