The number of lawsuits involving animals statewide is increasing, according to New Jersey animal-law experts.
Sherry Ramsey, head of the New Jersey Bar Association's animal-law committee, said it is a trend that will continue as long as pet owners view their animal companions as family members.
"People want to bring cases to get justice for their animal," she said. "They're certainly becoming more commonplace."
Something as simple as using the word "guardian" as opposed to "pet owner" in legal documents could have significant implications. For veterinarians, such subtle shifts could mean the advent of malpractice lawsuits. Currently, there is little legal basis to sue veterinarians for malpractice.
"What I'm trying to do is find a half-measure that will give animals better legal respect without hurting the veterinarians with malpractice," Matlack said.
Using a term like "sentient property" instead of "property" when referring to animals could be such a measure. In European legal language, the term "sentient being" is the norm.
"I'm suggesting we do the same thing in the U.S.," Matlack said.
Gary Francione, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Law in Newark and a strict vegan, isn't so sure that's a good solution.
He believes elevating the status of animals under the law could end up doing them more harm than good by introducing malpractice into veterinarians' billing equations.
"Veterinarians already don't make a lot of money. This is going to raise the cost of veterinary service," he said. "How many people are going to pay a huge amount of money to get veterinarian services?"