Good Intentions Go Astray

i Nov 6th

Bill S.767 has been introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature. Entitled “An Act relative to a private cause of action to prevent the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals,” the bill seeks to confer “standing to sue” on citizens of the Commonwealth, allowing them to invoke the judicial system on behalf of animals–a worthy proposal, but put forth in a wholly inept form.

Referred to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, the bill provides as follows:

SECTION 1. Chapter 243 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2010 Official Edition is amended by inserting after section 6 the following new section:

Section 7. A party of interest may bring an action under this chapter for the protection and humane treatment of animals. It shall be proper in any action to combine causes of action against one or more defendants for the protection of one or more animals. A party in interest as plaintiff shall include any person even if the person does not have any legal interest or possessory rights in an animal. Such person has standing to bring an action under this section based on the public policy against animal mistreatment. The action may be commenced against any individual, guardian or any entity that has possession of an animal and has engaged in or defendant shall include any guardian who has or is engaging in cruel or inhumane treatment of an animal or animals.

To make the proposed statute more intelligible to laypersons, we’re going to rearrange it.

Who can sue? A party in interest as plaintiff shall include any person . . . . In other words, anyone. Presumably, infants to the aged, whether citizens or residents of Massachusetts or not.

Must they have a personal interest in a specific animal or animals? . . . even if the person does not have any legal interest or possessory rights in an animal. No interest of any kind whatsoever is necessary in order to invoke the judicial power of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Why are they authorized to sue? Because Massachusetts has a “public policy against animal mistreatment.” In other words, because the Commonwealth has laws against animal cruelty, anyone, even persons with no connection to any specific animal or animals, can bring someone to court.

Who would be the defendant or defendants? Well, this crucial sentence of the bill is unintelligible: “any individual, guardian or any entity that has possession of an animal and has engaged in or defendant shall include any guardian. . . .” Yes, that’s what it says.

Engaged in what? “cruel or inhumane treatment of an animal or animals.” While on its face the bill is meaningless because “cruel or inhumane” is not defined, it probably refers to conduct prohibited under other Massachusetts’ statutes. Maybe.

We could say more about the bill–how its vagueness probably renders it unconstitutional, how as a practical matter it would be unmanageable, how it fails to differentiate between civil and criminal lawsuits, how damages are to be assessed, and more–but to ISAR, which has said quite a lot about the subject of standing to sue (See Animals and “Standing to Sue”Litigation) it is sufficient to observe that yet again legislators sympathetic to animals have made a colossal mistake, revealing once more good intentions gone astray.

Bill S.767 188th (Current)

By Mr. Montigny, a petition (accompanied by bill, Senate, No. 767) of Mark C. Montigny and Benjamin Swan for legislation to prevent the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. The Judiciary.

Sponsors: Mark C. Montigny

Status: Referred to Joint Committee on the Judiciary

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“Cruel and inhumane treatment of an animal or animals” shall include a violation of chapter 272, sections 77 to 80G or any circumstance in which the life, health or safety of the animal is at risk.