A dog owner won a lawsuit against the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (“SPCA”) in a case that went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The dispute started when the SPCA seized the owner’s dogs, claiming that the dogs had been abused. Shortly after seizing the dogs, the SPCA euthanized them. The owner sued the SPCA, claiming improper interference with personal property and negligence. The SPCA defended the claim, arguing that it was entitled to full governmental immunity. The principles of governmental immunity drastically limit the circumstances under which federal, local, and state governments can be sued.
The SPCA is a private nonprofit corporation that has authority under Pennsylvania law to enforce the Pennsylvania Dog Law, including the authority to seize dogs, arrest owners, execute search warrants, and generally enforce all laws protecting animals. The SPCA is not government‑run or government‑regulated; it hires and fires its own employees, elects its own officers and directors, and manages its own budget. The SPCA owns its assets, controls its income, and enacts its bylaws without any governmental intervention or involvement.
Because SPCA officers have arrest powers and the authority to seize dogs, the SPCA claimed it was more like government than a private business. The SPCA noted that, by law, it is entitled to and receives a one‑half share of all fines collected for cruelty‑to‑animals violations. The SPCA argued that this sharing of fines “intertwined” the agency with government, making it an agent of government and giving it full governmental immunity from suits.
But the courts, including the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, disagreed, finding that whatever level of entanglement the SPCA may have with government and law enforcement, it remains a separate, private entity. Only government agencies are entitled to governmental immunity. No amount of involvement with government can confer governmental immunity on a private entity.
The SPCA is a nonprofit corporation that protects animals and provides a vital service to local law enforcers in enforcing animal cruelty and animal management laws. Unless Pennsylvania law is changed, providing it with some independent immunity, the SPCA will remain vulnerable to lawsuits arising from its enforcement of animal laws.