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COA rules for DNR after dog killed by raccoon trap at park

July 23, 2018

A woman whose pet beagle was killed by a concealed raccoon trap in Versailles State Park has lost her bid for declaratory judgment against the Indiana Department of Natural Resources after the Indiana Court of Appeals determined the woman’s claims were moot. The court also found the dog’s sentimental value could not be considered in the calculation of damages.

The case of Melodie Liddle v. Cameron F. Clark, et al., 49A04-1707-MI-1662, began on an unseasonably warm afternoon in December 2011, when Melodie Liddle was walking her dogs, including her beagle, Copper, through the southeastern Indiana state park. At one point, the dogs led Liddle down an embankment, where she heard Copper begin to yelp.

As Liddle approached her dog, she discovered he was ensnared in a raccoon trap set by Harry Bloom, a park security officer who had been authorized to set raccoon traps pursuant to a DNR-issued emergency rule. Though she tried to set the dog free, Liddle was unsuccessful, and Copper died while still in the trap.

Liddle sued DNR representatives in their individual and official capacities, seeking various forms of relief, including declaratory judgment that the emergency rules could not be used to issue trapping permits and damages related to Copper’s death. The Marion Superior Court awarded $477 in damages, aligning with Copper’s fair market value, but declined to enter declaratory judgment. The judge found that Liddle’s challenge to the rules, which were issued from 2007 to 2013, were either time-barred or moot, depending on the year the rule was issued.

Liddle’s counsel, Anne Benaroya with the Center for Wildlife Ethics, told the Indiana Court of Appeals last month that Liddle’s claim should be allowed to proceed under the public standing doctrine. But deputy attorney general Andrea Rahman said the trial court’s mootness ruling was appropriate.

The appellate panel agreed with the state on Monday, with Senior Judge and former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard writing that the 2012 and 2013 emergency rules have expired and are no longer in effect. Similarly, DNR no longer uses the emergency rules process to govern trapping in state parks, Shepard wrote.  

“Further, to the extent that Liddle wishes to challenge the general practice of trapping for profit in Indiana’s public parks, if DNR continues to allow trapping under Indiana Code section 14-22-6-13, then the issue will not evade judicial review but will instead arise in the future,” Shepard continued. “For these reasons, we decline to apply the public interest exception, and we affirm the trial court’s determination that Liddle’s claim for declaratory relief is moot.”

The panel also rejected Liddle’s argument that Copper’s sentimental value should have been considered in her damages award. Relying on Lacheman v. Stice, 838 N.E.2d 451 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), Shepard said pets are legally considered personal property, limiting damages for their loss to their fair market value.

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