Regarding Humanity: How a Punitive Damages Statute Reflects Humanity's View of Animal Cruelty
The New York Civil Code (Field Code) includes a statute that provides, “For wrongful injuries to animals, being subjects of property, committed willfully, or by gross negligence, in disregard of humanity, exemplary damages may be given.” The phrase “in disregard of humanity” justifies why punitive damages are appropriate, but it is left undefined, and it turns out that “humanity” is a nuanced term both in common and legal usage
This article seeks both historical and contemporary understandings of the phrase “disregard of humanity.” The result of the analysis, which takes a multidisciplinary approach, is a realization that this statute, if it had been more widely adopted, would have the potential to shape a modern human-animal ethic. As social attitudes regarding the human-animal relationship develop, consistent application of this statute would force consideration of what type of harm, and what level of harm, society is willing to allow people to perpetrate against animals.
Part I provides context by examining the legal mechanism—punitive damages—underlying the statute. Punitive damages awards are often value-based so combining the “disregard of humanity” language with the purpose of punitive damages could provide a legal mechanism to enforce developing societal attitudes about animal welfare. Part II seeks to determine the meaning of the Field Code statute by looking at its history and application, though neither of those provide much evidence about the meaning of “disregard of humanity.” Part III, then, breaks down the language even farther. “Disregard of humanity” may be difficult to define, but “humanity” has meaning. This part takes a multidisciplinary approach to examine the meaning of “humanity.” This inquiry leads to considering, in Part IV, “humanity” in the legal context of “crimes against humanity.” This principle in international law developed after the Field Code and therefore lends little insight into original meaning of “disregard of humanity,” but considering the meaning of humanity in “crimes against humanity” offers a way to both understand and contemporize “disregard of humanity.” In Part V the article offers a meaning of “disregard of humanity” so that the statute can be utilized to shape a human-animal ethic that better protects animals.