HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals doesn't qualify as a state agency and so can't claim immunity from a lawsuit over the euthanization of a woman's dogs, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The court ruled unanimously that the nonprofit group is not entitled to the defense of sovereign or governmental immunity despite its work enforcing state animal control laws.
The SPCA appealed after a Philadelphia jury awarded Laila Snead about $155,000 in a case that began with the January 1999 seizure of about a dozen dogs from what court records described as an abandoned home.
A humane society officer reported there were 13 dogs, according to a lower-court ruling in the matter, but Snead maintains that there were only 12 dogs and that she was staying in the home off and on at the time.
All but one of the dogs were pit bulls, and the humane society officer said several of the dogs were wounded and emaciated, according to a July 2007 Superior Court opinion.
Snead showed up shortly after officers arrived at the scene and was arrested on dog-fighting charges. Those charges were dropped the following day, although she later was convicted of a summary offense of animal cruelty.
Snead said that three days later, when she tried to check on her dogs at a shelter, she was told they had been put to sleep, although that didn't occur until three more days had passed. An SPCA official denied that he told her the dogs had been euthanized, but the jury sided with her.
On appeal, the state Superior Court rejected the SPCA's argument that it was immune from being sued and granted Snead attorney's fees but reversed the $100,000 punitive-damages portion of the verdict. That lower-court decision was upheld yesterday by the Supreme Court.
"The SPCA selects its own directors, who oversee it and elect its officers," Justice J. Michael Eakin wrote. "The SPCA's funding largely derives from non-governmental sources. The SPCA cannot point to any commonwealth assets that would be at risk from any judgment against it; commonwealth resources would not be imperiled if the SPCA is exposed to legal liability."
Snead, who now lives in Reading, said she was pleased with the verdict but "all the money in the world is not going to bring my dogs back."
"When they say, 'You know what? We're going to do this and we don't care what the law says, what you think about it, this is what we're doing,' then, yes, in that case, something should be done," Snead said. "My only recourse was the civil court system."
SPCA spokeswoman Gail Luciani said the group was disappointed with the ruling because of its far-reaching implications.