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Max the Cat


Friday, May 26, 2006

Spokane, WA - Division Three of the Washington Court of Appeals yesterday recognized a new cause of action for those whose companion animals have been maliciously injured or killed. Womack v. Von Rardon, 24221-8-III, May 25, 2006 (Div. III, published).

On July 20, 2003, Jason Brumback, Rusty Von Rardon, and Jayson Anderson took Max, a feline cared for by Spokane resident Bernadette Womack, to Centennial Middle School, doused him in gasoline, and then set him on fire. Good Samaritans rescued him but not before he suffered extensive burns. His dire injuries resulted in euthanasia.

A lawsuit filed October 23, 2003 claimed that minor adults Jason Brumback and Rusty Von Rardon maliciously tortured Max Womack. Both minors were found guilty of first-degree animal cruelty in September 2003 and ordered to perform community service at an animal control facility in Spokane County. Neither SpokAnimal nor SCRAP agreed to permit them to serve time with their operations. The lawsuit also named Bonnie Mastain Rardon, mother to Rusty Von Rardon, and Donald G. Brumback and Susan L. Brumback, parents to Jason Brumback for negligent supervision of their sons.

Although it was originally believed that Brumback and Von Rardon acted alone, through discovery, Jason Brumback admitted that a third person, young adult Jayson Anderson, participated in abducting Max from Ms. Womack’s property and attempting to torture him at Centennial Middle School. Based on this revelation, Ms. Womack amended the complaint to name Jayson Anderson as a co-defendant.

The Brumbacks and Ms. Womack settled out of court, but Ms. Womack obtained a default judgment against the remaining defendants.

Spokane Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque awarded Ms. Womack $5000 for the value of Max and her emotional distress. He dismissed various claims, including one for outrage.

On May 16, 2005, Ms. Womack appealed Judge Leveque’s ruling to the Court of Appeals, claiming that the court erred in several respects.

In this published opinion, the Court of Appeals said the following:

“For the first time in Washington, we hold malicious injury to a pet can support a claim for, and be considered a factor in measuring a person’s emotional distress damages. The damages are consistent with actual and intrinsic value concepts as found in Pickford because, depending upon the particular case facts, harm may be caused to a person’s emotional well-being by malicious injury to that person’s pet as personal property. We do not interpret the trial court’s final reference to value as limiting the measure of damages to pet fair market value.”

This opinion is important for Washingtonians in the following respects:

  1. It confirms societal appreciation of animals by legitimizing our emotional connection to companion animals.
  2. It creates a new cause of action for malicious injury to a pet, thereby recognizing that pets belong to a special order not shared by washing machines and cars. There is no tort in Washington for “malicious injury to a toaster,” for instance.
  3. The court uses favorable language in recognizing that the value of a companion animal is actual and intrinsic, not fair market.
  4. The court recognizes that a person may be liable for another’s emotional distress when they maliciously injure or kill a companion animal regardless of whether that person knew of the pet owner’s existence and regardless of whether the person intended to cause distress in the pet owner by maliciously harming the animal. In sum, if you maliciously injure a pet solely to torture the animal and not because you want to hurt the pet’s guardian, you will pay for the guardian’s emotional distress damages.
  5. The court impliedly recognized that with the right facts, a person may sue for outrage (or intentional infliction of emotional distress) relating to the death of their companion animal.

Max the Cat did not die in vain. As a result of his death, state law has changed both criminally and civilly.

Criminal Changes:
One legislative response swiftly emanated from Senator McCaslin’s office. In December 2003, he introduced SB 6105. This juvenile sentencing bill proposed the following whenever felony animal cruelty was charged (1) making decline hearings mandatory and (2) rendering juveniles ineligible for deferred dispositions. Within three months, after a House amendment and substitution in the Senate, the final bill changed the rules for minors who torture mice: (1) the juvenile court may require the offender to submit to a mental health evaluation; (2) the court may order mental health treatment as a condition of community supervision; (3) upon conclusion of the period for the order of deferral, the conviction is nonexpungeable; (4) the seriousness ranking for first-degree animal cruelty increased from C to B, changing the standard range disposition from local sanctions for the first, second, third, or fourth offense (15 - 36 weeks confinement only for fifth offense) to local sanctions only for the first and second offense (with 15 - 36 weeks for the third or fourth offense; and 52 - 65 weeks for the fifth offense). See RCW 13.40.127(9) and RCW 13.40.0357. 2004 c 117 2, eff. July 1, 2004.

Civil Changes:
See above.

Here is the direct link to the opinion: Womack Published Opinion (pdf)



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