The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal on the issue of whether a witness may have an emotional support animal present while testifying at trial.
In Commonwealth v. Purnell, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania upheld a trial court’s ruling that an autistic minor witness could have a comfort dog with her on the stand as she testified in a murder trial. It held that permitting the comfort dog was within the trial court’s inherent authority to control the conduct of trial proceedings and was not an abuse of discretion. See Commonwealth v. Purnell, 233 A.3d 824, 2020 Pa. Super. Lexis 440, appeal granted 2020 Pa. Lexis 6298 (Pa. Dec. 9, 2020).
Though the issue was one of first impression in Pennsylvania, the trial court followed courts from throughout the country in holding the presence of an emotional support animal was not inherently prejudicial. It also found there was no actual prejudice to the defendant because the trial court implemented safeguards to ensure the jury did not know of the dog’s presence. Further, it held the prosecution did not have to prove the dog was necessary to secure the witness’s testimony, but only that its presence would help the witness testify truthfully and completely.
While Purnell relates to the use of a comfort dog in a criminal trial, the principles the Supreme Court ultimately adopts likely will be extended to employment and other civil actions as well. It is not difficult to imagine a court permitting an individual who claims to have been subjected to discrimination or harassment to have a comfort animal while testifying at trial, and even at depositions or other hearings. Also, as many employers are well-aware, requests for emotional support animals in the workplace are increasingly prevalent.
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