YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Animal law to sit, stay

According to the Animal Health Institute (AHI), Americans spent $5.8 billion on their pets in 2006.

The staggering figure is comprised of product sales -- primarily pharmaceutical, biological, and chemical items – which were used for medical treatment, prevention and basic care.

As for the research companies developing new products for consumer and commercial purposes, those national and global firms plan to invest $600 million in the advancement of medical knowledge.

For law firms, the veterinary industry may have become man's best friend.

After the contaminated dog food disaster, the legal industry witnessed a surge in litigation matters, which gave way to other pet and vet related work in the areas of medical malpractice, product liability, commercial transactions, insurance defense, and tax, estate and trust law.

However, one firm's business development is another party's downfall.

AHI's Web site features a section dedicated to the pet litigation system, noting "the current legal structure for pet litigation works well to allow stable and affordable veterinary care for animals while fairly compensating owners and punishing wrongdoers."

However, AHI believes that allowing frivolous lawsuits and large emotional distress awards threatens to drive up the cost of treatment and veterinary care, placing millions of pets at risk.

The organization fears what it calls "dangerous" trends, in that efforts are in progress to change the legal status of animals in connection to humans. Case outcomes are setting legal precedents in that the pet/owner arrangement is beginning to mimic a parent/child or spousal relationship.

The details of Leona Helmsely's will may be perfect examples of such legal trends, viewed as dangerous (yet profitable). The luxury hotel mogul left her white Maltese named Trouble a $12 million trust fund along with strict instructions for the canine's guardian to have the dog buried next to her in the family mausoleum after its death.

While the animal law practice is not a new legal phenomenon, the field is being taken much more seriously than ever before. The American Veterinary Medical Law Association (AVMLA) is a national organization of attorneys, veterinarians, and other individuals and groups with collective interests as to how the discipline pertains to the profession and allied fields.

Incorporated in 1994 as a non-profit organization, AVMLA keeps members apprised of the latest issues in veterinary medical law, while increasing public awareness and understanding of how legislation affects animal care. The organization also facilitates interactions among different regulatory agencies and all levels of the court system.

In the case law section of the AVMLA Web site, topics and rulings span the spectrum of legal issues, from practice partnerships ending in lawsuits to animal abuse and neglect. The New York Times covered a story highlighted by the AVMLA, in which a disgruntled ex-wife pulled into the driveway of her ex-husband's home in to pick up a few belongings.

A heated argument erupted, causing the ex-husband's golden retriever to become agitated. When the dog approached the woman, she allegedly kicked it with great force. After the woman was arrested for animal abuse, a Superior Court judge ordered her to stay at least 100 yards away from the dog, or risk spending five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. In addition, the judge demanded that she stay away from her ex-husband (and his new wife).

On the other side of the courtroom, corporate defense firms are in the midst of "failure to warn" cases, in which veterinary practitioners are being expected to answer for human injuries and medical reactions. Some of the most emotionally charged matters involve children in households that contain aggressive animals or intolerant pets.

Law firms are joining a growing population of individuals and businesses that no longer view animals as inanimate objects. In the wake of celebrity endorsed dog-fighting rings and questionable breeding of racehorses, lawyers are learning that the early bird catches the worm.

Kathryn E. Brown is the managing member of The Write Word LLC, a writing and editing agency based in Charleston. She can be reached by contacting the agency's Web site:

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