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Whose Dog Is It? (or, I’m a dog, not just another piece of furniture!)

In a case involving animal rights, the Kent County (Rhode Island) Superior Court recently addressed a matter of “Whose Dog Is It?” (Alexander M . Champagne v. Kelley F. Higgins). In that case, Mr. Champagne and Ms. Higgins traveled to China, where they lived together for about two years. While in China, they “mutually decided to acquire a dog for companionship.”  As the court observed, the dog – Hector – was a loyal companion to both Higgins and Champagne while in China.  In April 2012, Higgins’ visa expired and she returned to the United States with Hector. Champagne remained in China to finish his studies, and in June 2012, returned to the United States. In June 2015, Champagne and Higgins broke up, and  Hector stayed with Higgins.  Champagne eventually sued to get possession of Hector.

As the Kent County Superior Court’s Judge Rubine observed:

  • “In Rhode Island as in most jurisdictions, domestic animals and pets are considered personal property or chattels and ownership and possession are determined by property law. In other words, the majority view finds pet animals to be no different than a piece of furniture or a painting.”

Judge Rubine then cited to a “good summary of the evolving law of companion pets,” referencing Sabrina DeFabritiis’ Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Companion Animals, Emotional Damages, and the Judiciary’s Failure To Keep Pace, 32 N. Ill. U. L. Rev. 237 (2012), and  noted that the  premise of that article is summarized as follows:

  • “An increasing number of American households regard their companion animals as being as much a part of their family as they do their human family members; however, companion animals have not always held this status. The role companion animals serve has evolved from chattel property—whose function was to derive economic benefit—to family members who share a unique emotional bond with their human companions. The judiciary has failed to keep pace with this societal change . . .”

The Rhode Island court, Judge Rubine,  then noted that “a pure property analysis looks principally to the party who paid the purchase price, to determine right to possession,” but also observed that there were problems with treating a companion animal such as Hector like a simple piece of furniture. The Rhode Island court then favorably referenced a “more enlightened approach in keeping with modern societal views” that a recent New York Supreme Court  had taken in the case of Travis v. Murray, 42 Misc. 3d 447 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2013), also involving a companion animal.

The Rhode Island court noted the less understanding, historical approach of treating a dog (or other animal) as a simple piece of property involved looking at who has the “superior possessory right in the chattel [property] and thus, it is the property rights of the litigants, rather than their respective abilities to care for the dog or their emotional ties to it, that are ultimately determinative.” The court compared that approach with the New York Travis case standard that, in resolving the issues of ownership and possession of a companion dog, allows “the court to look to factors not considered in order to determine property rights of ownership or possession of other chattels, but recognizes companion animals as sui generis, and right of possession should consider a standard based upon the ‘best for all concerned.’”

The Rhode Island judge then determined that, without proof of clear ownership one way or the other, that the court would apply the “best for all concerned” standard. In doing so, and in “weighing the best for all concerned with respect to ownership or rights to possession of a companion animal,” the judge concluded that Ms. Higgins was entitled to exclusive possession of Hector.  In other words, Hector – and other companion animals – are not just another piece of furniture!

For more detailed facts of the case, please see Alexander M . Champagne v. Kelley F. Higgins, decision dated December 16, 2016, Kent County Superior Court, (Warwick, Rhode Island), Judge Rubine presiding).

Categories: Animal Rights, Civil, Property Law, Recent Decisions.

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