A Pennsylvania Court of Appeals recently reversed a trial court’s order to dismiss a petition to review the decision of a district attorney’s office to not prosecute a dairy farm for animal cruelty and neglect. In other words, the court of appeals directed the prosecutor to bring charges against the dairy farm based on an activist group’s private criminal complaint.

A group called Animal Outlook (“AO”) infiltrated the dairy farm with an undercover employee. That activist took video, pictures, and notes during the time she was employed by the dairy. AO submitted her materials and a veterinarian’s opinion letter to the authorities and alleged the dairy had engaged in animal abuse. The state police conducted its own investigation (which included obtaining additional veterinarians’ opinions) and ultimately issued a press release indicating the District Attorney had declined prosecution, noting the farm had increased its trainings and adjusted some of its procedures for handling calves. AO filed its own “private criminal complaint” with three counts (animal cruelty, animal neglect, and aggravated cruelty to animals) as allowed by Pennsylvania law.

The trial court considered all the materials and determined the DA had correctly determined there was not enough evidence to prosecute the dairy farm or its employees. The trial court explained that the opinion from AO’s vet and from AO’s undercover activist were in direct conflict with vets and employees’ statements who had worked with the dairy for decades. The trial court therefore held there was not a prima facie (meaning on first impression) case against the dairy and the DA was correct in declining prosecution.

AO appealed and the appellate court ruled that the DA must prosecute the dairy farm. First, the court of appeals held the trial court erred because in determining whether there was a prima facie case against the dairy, it should have viewed all evidence in favor of moving forward with a prosecution. The court explained that a prima facie case merely requires some evidence of each element of the crime; the weight and credibility of the evidence should not be considered. Second, the appellate court criticized the trial court for failing to consider the entire record of AO’s allegations. Instead, the trial court analyzed just a few of the claimed events of abuse that supported the DA’s decision not to prosecute. The court of appeals specifically pointed out the dairy’s dehorning procedure as a practice that could give rise to criminal charges.

Finally, the court considered a Pennsylvania statute which exempts “normal agricultural operations” from being prosecuted under any of the statutes raised by AO. The dairy is obviously an agricultural operation, so the question focused on what “normal” practices are. The DA argued, and the appellate court agreed, that the failure of the dairy and its employees to meet the standards recommended by industry groups did not render their acts criminal. The court, however, rejected the DA’s argument that the dairy’s practices were “normal” because the dairy had used those practices for years. Rather, the appellate court explained, whether an act is “normal” is not narrowly based on that one farm’s practice, but instead is based on whether it is “an accepted standard, model, or pattern; natural; standard; regular practice within the dairy industry.” The recommendations and guidelines of industry groups are pertinent to this inquiry to the extent that they are widely accepted or regular. The appellate court held the dairy’s practice of moving downer cows with heavy equipment violated the National Dairy FARM standards and therefore rendered the statutory defense incorrect. The evidence also supported rejection of excessive shocking and tail pulling as normal and accepted within the industry. Finally, the court held that the record showed the technique of dehorning older calves without anesthetic or pain relief was not standard or accepted within the industry.

In sum, the appellate court directed the DA to prosecute the dairy farm for cruelty, neglect, and aggravated cruelty and held the “normal agricultural practice” defense was inapplicable to certain practices at the farm. The lessons in this case are many, but to start:

  • livestock farms must not mistreat animals;

  • farms should review and train employees using industry-accepted standards;

  • farms should document their employee training;

  • farms must use caution in hiring and screen potential employees; and

  • farm owners or managers should know what goes on inside a barn to ensure the company’s standards are being followed, animals are being well cared for, and that employees are not improperly filming instead of doing their job.

Contact your lawyer if you suspect you have been infiltrated by an undercover activist or have been accused of animal abuse.