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New Virginia Supreme Court Case Upholds Animal Cruelty Conviction For Failure To Provide Emergency Veterinary Care: Sullivan v. Commonwealth

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As Bridgette Berbes drove along Interstate 81 in Augusta County, Virginia at lunchtime, she saw a horse covered with a purple blanket and lying in a pasture along the highway.  This struck Berbes as odd because it was a warm April day, and the temperature was in the upper 70’s.  Berbes ran some errands, then drove past the same spot where the horse was still lying in the same place.

Around 7:00 PM that same day, Berbes returned to the same place and found that the horse had not moved.  Berbes called her mother, asking her to call Terry Sullivan, the owner of the property, to tell Sullivan Berbes intended to go on the property to take a look at the horse.  Berbes found the horse to be so weak and thin that it could not lift its head off the ground to reach hay, grain and water that was placed on the ground behind it.  The horse was a 20-year old mare named “Dip.”

Animal Control Officer Gary Webb responded to a phone call about a downed horse and met with Sullivan and Berbes in the field by Dip.  Dip had been down about thirty hours by that point.  Berbes asked Sullivan to give her the horse, and Sullivan agreed provided that Berbes assumed responsibility for any vet costs.  Officer Webb prepared a “Surrender Statement by Owner” document that Sullivan signed.

Berbes called a veterinarian named Dr. Scott Reiners, who arrived at the scene and examined the horse.  Dr. Reiners found the horse unresponsive, very dehydrated and emaciated.  Dr. Reiners had to administer 22 liters of intravenous fluids to Dip as she lay in the field because she could not lift her head to drink water.  Dr. Reiner placed Dip on a continuous IV drip, transported her to his hospital and gave her drugs and six more liters of fluids.  Despite this care, Dip died later that night.  In Dr. Reiners’ opinion, Dip was in need of emergency care long before his arrival.

Sullivan was charged with animal cruelty based on her lack of care for Dip.  Sullivan was the president and executive director of Fern Leigh Equine Foundation, Inc., a non-profit that cared for homeless horses on Sullivan’s farm.  The foundation’s purpose was to care for horses until homes could be found for them.  Approximately 35 horses were being cared for on Sullivan’s property at the time of trial.

At the trial, two other veterinarians testified.  Dr. David Brown performed a postmortem exam of Dip, finding her to be emaciated and her ribs prominent.  In his opinion, Dip’s condition developed over a period of time, likely weeks.  Dip was suffering from several disease processes affecting her intestines, liver, kidneys, lungs as heart, and she was infested with intestinal parasites.  Dip became unable to absorb sufficient nutrition, which led to her emaciated and weak condition.

The second vet, Dr. William Hunter, testified that Sullivan called him on the same day Berbes went onto Sullivan’s property.  Sullivan said that she had a horse down, and thought she had been down about two days.  This surprised Dr. Hunter, because most horse owners would call him immediately if they found a horse down, and he had never known a horse to live after being down a day or two, even with medical treatment.  Sullivan told Dr. Hunter that she didn’t know anything was wrong with Dip, but when she removed the blanket, Dip had just wasted away.  Sullivan asked Dr. Hunter if Dip should be euthanized, and Dr. Hunter said the prognosis was poor, but that he could not recommend euthanasia until he examined the horse.  Dr. Hunter was willing to go see Dip, but Sullivan told him she could handle it. 

Sullivan claimed that after she talked to Dr. Hunter, she called a friend to bring his shotgun to euthanize Dip, but the friend was unable to come until the next day.  By that point in time, Dip had already been moved to Dr. Reiner’s hospital.

The statute at the time, Virginia Code Section 3.1-796.122 [currently Code Section 3.2-6570], stated that “[a]ny person who . . . (ii) deprives any animal of necessary food, drink, shelter or emergency veterinary treatment . . . shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”  At Sullivan’s trial, the Augusta County Circuit Court found Sullivan guilty of animal cruelty for failing to provide Dip adequate emergency veterinary care.  The court sentenced her to twelve months in jail with six months suspended conditioned on good behavior and no possession of horses for 24 months.

Sullivan appealed to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed Sullivan’s conviction.  Judge McClanahan was the sole dissenter.  He concluded that Sullivan had provided food and water.  Regarding emergency veterinary treatment, he cited the statutory definition [currently found in Virginia Code Section 3.2-6500], “veterinary treatment to stabilize a life-threatening condition, alleviate suffering, prevent further disease transmission, or prevent further disease progression.”  He construed the statute to say emergency veterinary care is only required if it would produce specific positive results in the horse’s condition.  Judge McClanahan felt there was no evidence regarding what treatment could stabilize a life-threatening condition or alleviate suffering, and that there was no evidence that Dip was actually suffering. 

The Virginia Supreme Court had no problem finding that Sullivan deprived Dip of necessary emergency veterinary treatment.   The justices concluded that, at the very least, emergency care was immediately necessary to alleviate Dip’s suffering during a period of 30 to 48 hours before her death.

Sullivan has the right to file a Petition for Rehearing, but based on the Virginia Supreme Court’s straightforward and unwavering opinion affirming her conviction, it is highly unlikely the Court would reverse itself.

UPDATE:  As expected, the Virginia Supreme Court has refused Sullivan’s Petition for Rehearing on January 21, 2011.  Conviction stands!

Author: Heidi Meinzer

Attorney and Animal Lover, not necessarily in that order

3 thoughts on “New Virginia Supreme Court Case Upholds Animal Cruelty Conviction For Failure To Provide Emergency Veterinary Care: Sullivan v. Commonwealth

  1. Pingback: Virginia Finally Proposes Minimum Standards Of Care For Agricultural Animals « Companion Animal Law Blog

    • Actually the bill proposed has a lesser standard of care ( “food to prevent malnourishment and water to prevent dehydration”, neither of which is defined, and both of which are countenanced if pursuant to common farming practice) than the current cruelty provision which state “necessary food, water, and shelter. The bill is an open attempt by agribusiness to shield any” farming activity” defined very broadly in the statute from oversight.

      • No doubt jurisdictions with competent animal control officers have read “necessary food, drink, shelter or emergency veterinary treatment” in Virginia Code Section 3.2-6570 (A) broadly, and would not have waited to the point of malnourishment or deyhdration to bring cruelty charges (Class One Misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2500 fine). The only thing that I liked about this bill was that it set up standards for agricultural animals parallel to companion animals for a lower level misdemeanor neglect charge. Unfortunately, these standards are so pathetically low that, like you say Lisa, the proposed law guts cruelty cases for agricultural animals. I heard that they are working on the language in this bill, and I certainly hope that is the case.

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