Friday, February 10, 2006

Lawyer breaking new legal ground on animal issues

Tuesday, February 7, 2006 - 12:00 AM

Attorney Adam Karp, who specializes in animal law, considers the value of a dog's lost leg in a classroom at Seattle University.

Lawyer breaking new legal ground on animal issues

By Susan Gilmore
Seattle Times staff reporter

In a Seattle University law classroom, attorney Adam Karp plunks his feet on a bench, next to his chalkboard sketch of a three-legged dog.

His shoes are not leather. His tie, the one with a picture of a giraffe, isn't silk. He wears no wool. His belt is plastic.

And, he practices only animal law.

"It's more a way of life than a philosophy," said Karp, the only attorney in the state whose practice is limited to cases involving animals.

"It began when I became a vegan, when I was able to open my eyes to injustices in the way we treat animals. It's a serious problem here, and the law is a ripe tool for affecting change."

Karp, 32, a Bellingham resident, teaches animal law at Seattle University and the University of Washington and founded the animal-law section with the Washington State Bar Association.

He said becoming a vegan — not eating meat or wearing anything made from animals — opened his eyes to the way animals are treated. Practicing solely animal law was a way to marry his personal and professional views.

Last month he won a major decision from the state Court of Appeals that could affect how animals deemed to be vicious are treated in the courts.

In that case, the court overturned a death sentence imposed by King County for a mixed-breed dog because its owner wasn't given the right to subpoena witnesses and records. It could be precedent-setting in the way King County deals with dangerous dogs.

"What Adam does is a labor of love," said Peter Mansour, owner of Maxine, the dog involved in the court case.

"He feels very strongly about animal rights and the legal issues that revolve around them. You won't find anyone in the state, and I might venture to say the country, who understands legal issues surrounding animals' rights better than Adam. It's because it's a subject that's near and dear to his heart."

Service dog

In another case that goes to appeal in King County Superior Court this week, Karp represents a woman who suffers from panic attacks and has a service dog. She says she was thrown out of a Ballard convenience store because of the dog. Last year, a city hearing examiner issued a $21,000 judgment against the store owner, who is appealing.

"I called all over the place when I couldn't get any help with discrimination," said Joyce Fischer-Jones, who owns the chow/Labrador mix and had the encounter with the convenience-store owner. "But when I got hold of Adam he felt we had a case. He was there for me. He listened to me. I went through a lot of no's before I found Adam."

Last May, Karp won $45,480 in a case where a neighbor's dog mauled and killed a cat named Yofi. It was considered among the largest amounts nationwide stemming from lawsuits over the loss of pets.

The judge did wonders for breaking the barrier on valuing animals, Karp said.

"[The judge] acknowledged a value well beyond the purchase price for an individual feline who did not deserve to die."

Karp doesn't expect his client to ever see the money awarded, but calls it a "symbolic victory."

Many of Karp's cases involve custody issues, including the case of HeyZeus, a Husky. When the dog's owners split up, the issue of HeyZeus' ownership landed in court. Karp was involved in a settlement that led to joint custody.

Karp grew up around the country, moving with his father, an itinerant doctor. He graduated from high school in Spokane, then attended Gonzaga University and the University of Washington School of Law.

After law school, he received a master's degree in science and statistics and worked as a statistician for a law firm. His first animal case was in 2000 — a dispute over a purebred dog that was lost and then spayed.

Need for experts

Nationally, animal law is growing, said Joyce Tischler, founding director of the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund in 1979. Today, she said, there are 67 animal-law classes being taught in the U.S., and 12 states including Washington have state animal-law sections.

She said there's a huge need for experts in animal law, "and they're not represented until someone with the guts and the wisdom of Adam Karp comes along."

According to her agency, 19 percent of the most egregious animal-cruelty cases in the nation in 2004 took place in the Pacific Northwest, and the numbers are growing.

Karp owns five cats, some of them fighting cancer. He doesn't have dogs because he doesn't want to add the stress to the household he shares with his wife.

"More and more, I take cases where I think people shouldn't have pets," he said. "I see instances of negligent and reckless control of animals resulting in preventable injury, death and heartache."

To Mansour and his dog Maxine, Karp was a lifesaver.

"I would challenge anyone to find another individual who is more passionate about his/her work than Adam Karp," Mansour said. "I know that at times, it is draining for him, because he tends to get emotionally involved in his cases. But winning a case like Maxi's makes it all worthwhile for him."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

How much is your pet worth?

Cases of owners suing vets for emotional distress and malpractice drawing lots of attention

By Mike Riopell
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Monday, February 06, 2006

To Jim Noyes, hurting his dog is like hurting one of his family members.

He adopted the black Labrador and German shepherd mixed-breed dog, Missy, when he lived in St. Charles several years ago.

Missy has leg problems, Noyes said, and several surgeries trying to repair them ended disastrously. The dog eventually lost her left hind leg.

Noyes, who now lives in Prairie Grove near Crystal Lake, said Missy is confined to the kitchen. The large, old dog can’t hobble very far.

He will go to trial in May with the Buffalo Grove veterinarian who performed the procedures, trying to recoup money he spent on veterinary bills.

But because Noyes said he feels a special tie to Missy, he and his wife also are seeking more than $50,000 in damages to cover the emotional distress the dog’s suffering caused them.

“It was incredibly stressful seeing her suffer so much,” he said. “It certainly created a tremendous amount of pain and stress in our lives.”

The notion of Noyes and other pet owners winning large malpractice awards is also causing discomfort among veterinarians.

They fear that if such awards become common, basic veterinary care will become too expensive for average people.

Less care?

Large veterinary malpractice awards have been handed out several times in the last decade. In those cases, owners have received more than $30,000 for the tragic loss of a pet.

Some veterinarians say if more people are successful in recovering money beyond the veterinary bills, the cost of basic animal care may skyrocket.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has studied the issue at length and has made materials available to state organizations in case they need to fight local legislation that calls for increased awards.

Illinois veterinary leaders say they’re closely watching the situation here, although no trends have developed.

American Veterinary Medical Association spokesman Adrian Hochstadt said the special bond between pet and owner is undeniable, but allowing for more lawsuits will cause problems for everyone.

“A lot of bad things are likely to happen, none of which will benefit animals,” he said.

More awards will lead to higher malpractice insurance rates for veterinarians, he added. Now, a typical vet pays about $300 a year for insurance.

Premium costs for vets are typically low because malpractice cases are rare and awards are small.

As the universally small lawsuit awards indicate, courts widely regard pets as property, not family. So if they’re hurt in cases of malpractice, owners usually can recover money only to cover the pet’s market value.

A young, purebred puppy would be worth more than an aging mutt, much in the same way a new car is worth more than a well-worn clunker — no matter its sentimental value to the owner.

If lawsuits become more common, Hochstadt said, that added cost will be passed on to pet owners who might choose not to pay it.

“Unlike human medicine, the service is much more elastic,” he said.

Money might not be an object when someone is seeking medical care for a sick family member, but most people have a limit to how much they’ll spend on a pet.

And, people are already spending more to care for their pets these days.

Allan Paul, an associate dean at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, says advances in animal care have followed similar rates as those in humans. For example, pets can be treated for cancer with chemotherapy and receive heart transplants.

Those higher prices could also be a driving motivation behind lawsuits. When people pay more for a service, the stakes are almost certainly higher.

A sonogram for a pet could cost up to $200. Having a dog’s spleen removed could cost $300.

Today, people are more likely to pay for those complex procedures, especially in wealthy areas like Chicago’s suburbs.

Sandy Wisniewski said that wasn’t how it was when she was growing up.

“You didn’t have your dog’s teeth cleaned unless they were falling out,” said Wisniewski, president of Libertyville’s Animal Education and Rescue.

Just like people

When vets say increased insurance rates could make medical care hard to afford, their argument echoes those made in the debate over human malpractice that has raged in Illinois in recent years.

Last spring, Illinois doctors were successful in pushing for legislation that limits how much victims can recover in cases of human malpractice.

Echoing trial lawyers from the debate over humans, Chicago lawyer Amy Breyer, who specializes in animal law and is representing the Noyes family, said veterinary insurance is low enough that increased costs would be manageable.

She hopes compensation for distressed owners becomes more common.

That can happen, she said, if owners stick with it.

“This is different nowadays because clients come in willing to pay money to hire savvy lawyers to litigate these cases as forcefully as they would for any other interest,” Breyer said. “At the very least, they’re getting more attention because they’re being litigated more aggressively.”

That could be good news for pet owners who lose the companionship of man’s best friend at the hands of someone who was supposed to help.

“When they’re sick, we take them to the doctor,” Noyes said. “We treat them absolutely as family.”