The Road to Justice Continues for Copper – An Update on Liddle v. Clark, et al.

When the Center for Wildlife Ethics (CWE) first accepted Melodie Liddle’s legal case in 2015, the nonprofit organization couldn’t fathom the journey this case would take them on, nor could they anticipate the legal significance that Liddle v. Clark, et al. would represent.

Case History

In December 2011, Indiana resident Melodie Liddle suffered the tragic loss of her companion dog, Copper, due to an unauthorized wildlife trap set by an employee of the Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources (IDNR) in Versailles State Park.

<em>Melodie Liddle, 2017 </em>
Melodie Liddle, 2017

The wildlife trap that killed Copper, as well as the dozens of other traps scattered throughout Versailles State Park, was intentionally concealed from public view. It was later revealed that efforts had been deliberately made by IDNR to keep the trapping of wildlife a hidden practice.

(Background on this case can be found in the following article, Justice for Copper – When a Walk in the Wood Turns Deadly, published by The Huffington Post in November 2016).

Seeking remedy for the agency’s negligent actions that led to the death of Copper, Melodie Liddle sought legal counsel, and turned to prominent public interest attorney, Laurence Reuben, who initially filed her litigation in 2013.

In early 2015, just prior to his death, Mr. Reuben contacted Laura Nirenberg, Executive Director and Chief Counsel at CWE, and encouraged the organization to represent Ms. Liddle’s legal efforts. Swayed by Mr. Rueben’s persuasion techniques and fatherly-type assurances that this case would be a “great learning experience,” CWE agreed to take the case.

At the time, discovery in the case was still ongoing, and Mr. Reuben had no way of knowing the level of complexity that would eventually surface.

After several years of discovery, depositions, and court proceedings – driven by the tenacity of CWE, this pivotal case is shining a light on the highly questionable practices and ethics of IDNR, a state agency accustomed to operating in the dark.

Litigation Update – Court sides with CWE and Plaintiff, Melodie Liddle

CWE prevailed on Ms. Liddle’s premises liability claim in June 2017 when the Marion County Superior Court found IDNR negligent for failing to make any effort to warn state park patrons that their employee maintained deadly wildlife traps in Versailles State Park.

You can read more about this important verdict here.

Despite CWE’s Victory, an Appeal is Essential

While the court finding IDNR negligent is a significant victory for Melodie Liddle and the general public, this ruling is incomplete. IDNR has yet to offer any assurance that a similar tragedy will not happen to another unsuspecting member of the public while either walking a dog, or perhaps, taking a small child out to explore nature in one of Indiana’s state parks. And, as evidenced by IDNR’s latest administrative rule package, it appears the agency has no intention of ending commercial fur trapping on state park lands.

CWE has filed an appeal with the Indiana Appellate Court to address the litigation’s deficiencies. The appeal questions IDNR’s statutory authority to allow commercial fur trappers to maintain lethal traps on state park property and profit from the sale of furs from animals captured. The appeal also challenges the inadequate remedy of a 2016 Court order limiting Melodie’s damages to the “fair market value” of Copper.

What is the “fair market value” of a beloved pet?

CWE argues that this arbitrary measurement of valuation is inappropriate in this case. Copper, a devoted companion for ten years, was a mixed-breed dog that Melodie Liddle rescued from a neglectful situation. There is no “market” for Copper; she has no commercial value and was never within the stream of commerce, nor could she ever be. The unique facts in this case warrant a sentimental damages or inherent value award – the only “fair” and just valuations.

Melodie Liddle’s grandson Evan and Copper.
Melodie Liddle’s grandson Evan and Copper.

It is CWE’s position that the Court’s 2016 order was in error and prevented any opportunity for Melodie Liddle to testify about what made Copper important to her and the inherent value of the human-animal bond they shared.

The appeal filed by CWE is not about money. This is about giving Melodie Liddle her day in court and ensuring that the reckless disregard of public safety demonstrated by IDNR, which cost Copper her life, is permanently halted.

The Hidden Lesson here is the Imbalance of Power

This case, for those paying close attention, also calls out a profound imbalance of power. For the average citizen of modest means, access to justice for negligence claims against a state or federal government agency remains out of reach.

Funded by taxpayer dollars, agency defendants (be they state or federal) experience no shortage of funds, and are able to weather the storm if circumstances shift abruptly. Well-monied defendants can also sustain lengthy litigation while the passage of time and life circumstances can be crippling for any plaintiff. This inequity thwarts worthy claims and the advancement of law consistent with societal values.

The societal cost is severe. A plaintiff’s inability to hold government truly accountable for wrong doing, only encourages those public officials to continue behaving irresponsibly and not in the public’s best interests.

What this case illustrates is not to be taken for granted. The progression of our society relies on the advancement of laws that accurately reflect societal values and beliefs. Case law cannot be established when few can afford to avail themselves of the judicial branch of government. And as we’re all painfully aware, the legislature is no longer working for the people, but rather advocating laws that provide more obstacles to court access, or additional layers of immunity to government actors.

While competent law firms capable of delivering critical legal services long-term for the purpose of advancing the law are few and far between, for plaintiffs like Melodie Liddle (and society as a whole) they represent their only hope for truly achieving justice.

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