Imagine a world where abused and neglected animals could hold the guilty parties legally responsible and actually sue for damages. It seems far-fetched, but is it?

In May, reports began to circulate about a horse from Oregon, U.S, aptly named Justice, that was suing a human for neglect.

Back in March 2017, Justice, then known as Shadow, was rescued from an Oregon farm and taken in by Sound Equine Oregon. When found, he was suffering from frostbite, lice, a skin condition called rain rot, and he was 300 lbs. underweight.

Months later, in July, his former owner, Gwendolyn Vercher, was charged with and plead guilty to criminal animal neglect. She agreed to pay about $3,700 USD in restitution to cover the cost of Justice’s care up to that point.

Some might say case closed, justice served. But wait… Thanks to the frostbite Justice suffered, he has ongoing health problems. His new guardians at Sound Equine Oregon thought Vercher should be held accountable, so, with help from the Animal Legal Defence Fund, they filed a lawsuit against her, naming Justice as a plaintiff. They are seeking more than $100,000 USD to pay for veterinary bills and for his pain and suffering.

If Justice is successful in his lawsuit, it will be the first time in North America that an animal is found to have legal status to sue in the courts.

Horse-Canada.com asked Toronto, Ontario based lawyer, Catherine Willson, if such a case could be tried in a Canadian court. She said, “Animals in Canada are property. They have as much legal status as a chair.”

Willson noted that animals do not actually have legal standing to sue in the U.S. either. “They are property just like in Canada,” she said. “Cases are launched in which people sue as ‘friends or guardians’ of animals, and these cases are met with mixed success. Animal rights advocates keep trying – Justice is one of many.”

She pointed to the recent highly publicized monkey selfie case launched by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on behalf of an Indonesian crested macaque named Naruto. The plucky primate became famous for the photos he snuck of himself on wildlife photographer David Slater’s camera in 2011. When the images were published in a book in 2014, PETA thought the copyright should belong to Naruto, but they lost the suit.

Another, less frivolous, example is the case of Kiko and Tommy, chimpanzees from New York that were among the first animals to sue their captors, in 2014, due to the unsuitable living conditions they were forced to endure. After more than three years, they too lost their case.

With respect to Canadian animal abuse laws, Willson said, “There are laws preventing cruelty to animals, but the laws are under-enforced and minimal.

“Courts are recognizing the importance of animals as pets in our lives. There are a number of cases in which pet owners have been awarded damages for pain and suffering, mental anguish, or loss of companionship when dealing with the death or injury of a dog or cat. This does elevate a pet to something above a piece of furniture.”

Wilson said provinces are introducing legislation classifying animals as “sentient beings” and introducing jail time for animal abusers.

“To provide animals with legal status and rights will have a huge impact on Canada’s agricultural industry and other industries,” she said. “I expect it will be sometime before we recognize in animals what many of us understand intuitively having spent time with them.”

Stay tuned to find out about Justice’s day in court.