Pet attorney is raising the bar on what beloved pets are worth
Case by case, Bellingham lawyer Adam Karp is pushing the law to honor the value of animals.
Seattle Times staff reporter
NONE OF IT might have mattered a decade ago.
The fact that Charles Corle loved his 11-year-old Labrador retriever, DJ, as much as a man would love a child? Tough luck. That DJ had done more to help Corle get past the trauma of service tours in Afghanistan and Iraq than any human being? Sorry, Charlie.
In the eyes of the law, fun-loving DJ, mauled to death by neighbors’ pit bulls in his own backyard in Vancouver, Wash., last spring, was simply property. His legal standing was not much different from the duffel bag that Corle carried with him on a business trip to Okinawa, where he got the news about the death of his best friend.
Adam Karp, 40-year-old Bellingham attorney at law — and something of a St. Francis with a briefcase — knows how it would have gone, back in the day, if he had called representatives of the pit bulls’ owners and discussed compensation for the loss that shattered Corle’s life.
“I’d get an adjuster on the line saying, ‘Well, OK, how old was the animal? What was the breed? Was it papered? Spayed or neutered?” he says. “I’d be like, ‘OK, I’ll tell you all this, but what does it have to do with anything, really?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, I’m going to go look and see what it costs to buy one.’
“I’d say: ‘OK, you can do that, but it won’t get us anywhere.’ ”
Today, thanks to a series of legal settlements providing ever-greater damage awards to pet owners — many brought by Karp, the region’s leading full-time pet attorney — the response would be different. On the other end of that same line, he would hear a heavy sigh, perhaps, then an invitation to work something out.
Which, in this case, they did — leading to a settlement of $11,000. To Karp’s ongoing regret, DJ the dog and all others like him still are considered “property” in the eyes of the law. But their replacement value is going up. And Adam Karp has every intention of keeping that value climbing.
TO CORLE, like many of Karp’s grateful clients, the money was not the point. It simply made a point: The other dogs’ owners were negligent. They harmed him. They didn’t seem sorry. And the writing of the check conferred justice when no other part of the law would do so.
“The guy didn’t care,” Corle said of the neighbor who owned the offending dogs — which the county’s Animal Protection and Control department confiscated. They ultimately were returned to the owner, who agreed to move them to another location.
Crushed, and angry, Corle called several local attorneys and found what most people in the same situation find: Zero interest. “Not enough money,” he recalls. Someone passed him the name of Karp, who jumped at the chance to bring suit.
Right away, Corle noticed something about the soft-eyed, goateed lawyer: He seemed less concerned about the size of the payoff than a just outcome.
“To find someone who is doing this not for the money but for the love of the animals and what they mean for people was important,” he says. “For him it was more than just a paycheck; it was a passion.”
A lawsuit was Corle’s last resort.
“I wanted my dog back,” Corle says, “and that was never going to happen. It really came down to, do I just forget about it, become a vigilante, or try to go through the court system and hurt the guy the most through his pocketbook?”
Most of Karp’s clients echo that.
Kendra Vorhies Flores of Olympia endured the horror of seeing her companion since childhood, Mary, a longhair calico cat, suffer and die after being viciously kicked by her then-husband. His penalty — a $1,000 fine and suspended 90-day jail sentence in a plea deal to animal-cruelty charges — wasn’t enough.
“Mary was my baby,” she says. “There was nothing I wouldn’t do for her.”
Let down by the justice system, she connected with Karp and sued; an arbitrator awarded her $25,000 in damages, which Karp is still attempting to collect.
She would have preferred to see her ex spend time in jail. But without the award, “It would have been a lot harder for me to move forward,” says Vorhies Flores, now 23, remarried and raising a young son. “This was about closure, and justice. It was just something I needed to do.”
Karp says his clients, to a person, come seeking to right a painful wrong. And the legal system is finally listening.
“The discourse has changed,” he says. Today, courts “recognize that intrinsic value (for a pet) is a real thing, and that they need to think outside that earlier box.”
KARP SEES these larger awards as only a small step in what could be a long march to make animals as valued in the eyes of the law as they are in the eyes of their adoring owners.
It’s not all about defending victims with tales that pluck the heart strings. He has attacked on multiple legal fronts, including challenges to local animal ordinances, custody disputes (determining the fate of pets whose coupled owners decide to uncouple), and stays of execution for dogs deemed vicious after attacking a person or other animal. Add to all this a growing number of malpractice suits against veterinarians.
His most famous case to date — though probably not his most legally significant — was that of Rosie, a lovable Des Moines Newfoundland, a family pet that wandered off and was shot dead by city cops for the crime of bounding through neighbors’ yards. After a yearlong, failed attempt to force the county prosecutor to bring charges against the officers, Karp sued the city, winning a record $51,000 in damages. Rosie’s owners, Deirdre and Charles Wright, later were awarded an additional $50,000 in attorney fees and other costs.
The city never admitted wrongdoing, but Karp thinks the point was made about the severity of the family’s loss — even if the dog was legally “property.”
“Money, for better or worse, is the one way we get them to think twice before they either act negligently or intentionally,” he says. “When I started practicing, the law was really underdeveloped in Washington as to the value of an animal and the recoverability of emotional damages. Over the years, Washington courts, and even the 9th Circuit (Court of Appeals), have repeatedly confirmed that people have a deep emotional life with their animals. They’re part of the family; it’s no big mystery or stretch to assert it.”
But courts have still not taken the next step — what Karp calls the “bigger fight” — awarding damages for emotional distress in people who lose pets because of the actions of others. It’s the giant, legal leap that would bring a corresponding jump in damage awards.
To simplify the technical legal question, Karp describes a mental “spectrum of culpability” for harming animals, with negligence on the lesser end, outright malice on the other. “The line that is drawn to determine when you can and can’t recover emotional distress has moved,” he says, sliding one finger away from malice. “My goal is to move that line all the way back to negligence.”
WHOA, COWBOY, say some other attorneys, who start to harrumph at this point in the legal conversation.
Animals, despite the way we coo at them and carry them in satchels through airports, are not people, and they never should be in a legal sense, says John Schedler, an attorney who has squared off repeatedly with Karp in courtrooms and believes the long, common-law record of dealing with animals works just fine, as is.
The legal tradition of treating animals as property exists for a reason, he says. State law is clear that emotional distress cannot be claimed for the death of an animal — a principle recently reaffirmed in the state’s three district appeals courts in cases brought by Karp, he notes.
Exceptions can legitimately be made in light of “malicious injury” (such as in the “Rosie” case, which Schedler says was handled “within the law”). But lacking evidence of that, “any arbitrator who awards $50,000 (in damages) for a $400 dog is not following the law,” Schedler insists.
He goes on: Extending emotional-damage awards to include pets would elevate them to a level not even enjoyed by all humans. If his brother, with whom he is very close, was hit by a car tomorrow, his wife would legally qualify for damages, and perhaps his daughters. “But I don’t,” Schedler says.
Schedler has a family dog himself and says he understands people’s love for animals. But he fears the depth of that emotion can cloud legal judgment — and that some recent cases prove the point.
“Adam wants to substitute feelings for policy,” Schedler says. “He makes his money as the contentious lawyer. If you put more feelings out there, his income goes up. But feelings are not a good thinking tool.”
All pet owners have a stake in the trend, he warns: Soaring awards in veterinary malpractice cases will translate to soaring costs for vet insurance, to the general detriment of animals everywhere.
“I don’t view Adam Karp as a bad person or a bad lawyer,” Schedler concludes. “I just think he’s profoundly mistaken and has failed to exercise the type of mature judgment I think he’s fully capable of.”
Karp counters that existing legal double standards also cut the other way, giving those who harm animals protections that those who harm humans — even a person’s sibling — do not enjoy. Emotional-distress awards also have been a remedy in Washington courts for many years in cases involving other property, such as a cherished automobile, harmed by others, he says. And he calls the specter of skyrocketing insurance premiums for vets because of a handful of malpractice awards a scare tactic.
Still, some critics are convinced that Karp seeks nothing less than the extension of full human rights to animal species.
Not so, Karp says.
“No one’s, of course, saying that we want to give dogs the right to drive or the right to go to a bar — although I’m amazed at the number of bills proposed in Olympia for dogs in bars,” he says, chuckling. “I think people have to recognize there are dissimilarities between humans and other species, that only some are legally relevant. But a lot of them aren’t. People focus on the ones that aren’t.”
And what of the slippery-slope argument that all this legal maneuvering will lead at some point to fishermen being arrested for catching fish?
Karp, a strict vegan, is also a realist. He does say he believes any law that inflicts unnecessary pain on an animal is wrong. “If it were up to me, (that) would be illegal,” he says. “But it’s a democracy.”
IN HIS personal life, Karp and his wife of nine years, Kim, walk the talk. They don’t eat meat or buy or use products derived from animals. They love dogs, own two cats, and are still mourning the passing of another who died recently at the age of 25.
Raised in a Jewish tradition but now a practicing Buddhist, Karp attended high school in Spokane. With a bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga and a law degree from the University of Washington, he began his career as a statistician for a law firm, but quickly saw his passion for animals leading him into his own specialized practice.
For the first few years, it netted him about $10,000. Now, he bills at $300 an hour and has to turn down work.
His cases often unleash his own emotions.
“There are times I’ll be looking at the pictures of an animal who’s been ripped to pieces or been executed, and I’ll just cry,” he says.
The victories make those tragedies more bearable, providing a “counterpoint that gives you hope again,” Karp says.
When time allows (Karp, who has no paralegal help, says he’s usually juggling more than 30 cases), he teaches animal-law classes at the UW and Seattle University. The field will grow, he predicts, and along with it an evolution in the way society’s laws not only treat animals but weigh their true emotional value to people. As someone who relates to that attachment, he acknowledges swinging out on a limb at times, in a legal sense. But he believes someone must.
“Am I a crusader? Yeah, I think so. But that’s not the only reason I do this. I still have a great reservoir of excitement for what the field can become and where we can develop the law.”
The law, he knows, often isn’t on his side. But growing public sentiment is — something even loyal opponents such as Schedler acknowledge, rolling their eyes as they do. Few legal cases tend to go viral in media as readily as those involving adorable animals, a fact Karp uses to his distinct advantage.
“It’s a phenomenon,” Karp says. “I understand that. I’m not a social scientist, but I’m sure there’s something to nibble on there.”
Judges have recognized it, one telling Karp about a case where a baby was thrown in a garbage can, which drew little public response. An animal-neglect case, meanwhile, often fills a courtroom.
He is as disgusted as the next person about the response to the child. But he’ll take the response to the animal — and run with it, win or lose.
“Sometimes,” he says, “just having people think about a subject is half the battle.”
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8280. On Twitter: @roncjudd. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.