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Animal Plaintiffs

By Matthew Liebman. Full Text.

From endangered Hawaiian songbirds to dolphins deafened by Navy sonar to a neglected horse named Justice, nonhuman animals increasingly appear as plaintiffs in lawsuits alleging their subjection to extinction, abuse, and other injustices. These cases are far more than mere novelties or publicity stunts; they raise important jurisprudential questions about what it means to be a plaintiff seeking relief. As we learn more about the richness and diversity of nonhuman life, our legal system will have to rethink its exclusions to meet the demands of interspecies justice.

Drawing on a diverse body of philosophical, jurisprudential, and scientific scholarship, this Article is the first to offer a comprehensive theory of plaintiffhood and apply it to nonhuman animals. It defends the plaintiffhood of animals by articulating the conceptual foundations of the figure of the plaintiff as an entity who complains about injustice, mourns death, and laments the mistreatment of herself and others. Developments in the study of animal behavior and cognitive ethology have demonstrated these features in animals—including inequity aversion in monkeys, grief in elephants, and resistance to exploitation amongst many other species. As sentient and plaintive beings, animals are conceptually situated to serve as plaintiffs.

In addition to describing the conceptual contours of plaintiffhood, this Article identifies plaintiffhood’s jurisprudential requirements and then analyzes whether animals can meet these expectations. Plaintiffs must be legal persons, possess legal rights, have legal capacity (or a representative to defend their interests), and have standing to pursue their claims. Through an engagement with legal theory and case law, this Article argues that animals are legal persons with legal rights that representatives can enforce in cases where animals have suffered the kinds of injuries that confer standing. As such, it concludes that animals are entitled to be plaintiffs in lawsuits. To deny them the ability to enforce their rights in court is unjustly anthropocentric.