Veterinary Expert May Opine on Animal’s Cause of Death Without Conducting Scientific Testing

Zach Barreto

Written by
— Updated on September 18, 2019

Veterinary ExpertCourt: Court of Appeals of Alaska
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Mollet v. State
Citation: 2019 Alas. App. LEXIS 47

Facts

The appellant was convicted of 4 counts of animal cruelty by a district court. The jury concluded that the appellant failed to care for animals he owned, including a horse that died. Eyewitnesses testified to the alleged mistreatment of the animals and said the appellant denied his animals proper food and shelter. The prosecution hired a veterinarian to serve as an expert witness and determine the cause of the horse’s death. The veterinary expert testified before the district court that the probable cause of the horse’s death was starvation.

The appellant filed this motion alleging that the district court had erred in allowing the expert’s testimony as it lacked proper scientific foundation.

Court Discussion

The appellant tried to exclude the veterinarian expert’s testimony on the basis that he had not conducted any tissue sampling or necroscopy of the horse’s corpse. According to the appellant, the expert’s method could not be considered scientific as he had merely observed the condition of the horse weeks after it had died. The prosecution opposed this motion arguing that the veterinary expert witness had based his opinion on his education and experience as a large animal veterinarian. In addition, the veterinary expert witness had field observation of the condition of the corpse and other living animals owned by the appellant and had consulted both eyewitness accounts and the Alaska State Trooper investigation.

The veterinary expert witness testified that he used a scientific method called the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System, which is a regular practice to determine the body condition of horses. He further testified that when he found the horse’s body, it was very emaciated. This emaciation, along with the absence of any traces of food or water in the pen where the horse had died, led him to conclude that the horse had probably died of starvation.

The veterinary expert also testified that since the horse’s emaciation was not caused due to decomposition of the body, as it had died in sub-zero temperatures. As a result, the animal’s body froze soon after death keeping it fairly well preserved for the veterinary expert to examine it 2 weeks later. However, the veterinary expert conceded that the Henneke System on its own does not allow a veterinarian to conclude the horse died of starvation. Thus, the expert used the system and observed the animal’s surroundings to determine the cause of death.

The court noted that just because an expert’s opinion is not based on scientific testing does not mean it is unreliable, stating that “there are circumstances where an expert (or even a non-expert) would be able to provide a reliable opinion that is not based on scientific testing regarding an animal’s cause of death”.

 Held

The court rejected the appellant’s argument that the veterinary expert’s opinion was not reliable as it was not based on scientific methods of examination. The court noted that the veterinary expert could determine the cause of the horse’s death without performing a necroscopy because he based his opinion on observing the animal, its surroundings, and on the facts of the case.

The court held that the trial court had not committed an error of law in allowing the veterinary expert to testify about the horse’s cause of death.

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