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Dog Fight: Philly SPCA Denied Sovereign Immunity

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on January 12, 2010 11:46 AM

Unlike such necessary state appendages as, perhaps the athletic department of a state-run school, the Pennsylvania SPCA felt the bite of the law on December 29th, when the state Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held it did not have the governmental protection of immunity against suits.

Dog owner Laila Snead, who reports say was incorrectly told that her dogs were seized by the SPCA and euthanized, sued the Association in a case that began in municipal court, wound its way through the court system in arbitration, trial and appeals, before finally coming before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in October of 2009. The Court dismissed SPCA's claim that as a state agency, they were immune from the suit and affirmed some of the damages awarded to the dog owner, finding the Association was a non-profit organization who appointed its own officers, drew most of its funds from non-governmental sources and did not hold any state assets that could be jeopardized by a judgment against it.

In this case, the practical outcome of a lack of protection from lawsuits will cost the SPCA about $54,000. The plaintiff in this case, not entirely free of blame herself, was the owner of 12 pit bulls which the SPCA confiscated due to malnourishment and injury, in January of 1999. Initially also hit with dog fighting charges, Snead tried to claim her dogs after those charges had been dropped but was told the dogs had already been put to sleep, something that did not actually happen until days later. Snead was later convicted of animal cruelty.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed the lower court's award of $100,000 in punitive damages finding there was no actual malice on the part of the ASPCA when it mistakenly informed Snead that her dogs were no longer alive. Snead says she is pleased with the outcome, but "all the money in the world is not going to bring my dogs back." It is unfortunate that the money she used to litigate this in case was not used instead on the dogs' care, an action which may have eliminated the necessity for all the of the resulting legal actions.

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