The Connecticut Supreme court today heard oral arguments on a case that will determine whether a 2012 ruling that suggested horses should be classified as a “naturally vicious” species should be overturned. The ruling will have significant impact on the equestrian industry by possibly making it impossible to insure horses. Connecticut has over 60,000 horses — the highest per capita of any state except Texas.
This case has been in play in the courts since 2010 and began in 2006. According to the case summary (link below) the biting incident took place after the plaintiffs bought plants at a Nursery in Connecticut and then went to look at three horses in an adjacent paddock. The child was then two years old. The father had been patting a horse called “Scuppy” when:
Suddenly, and without warning, Scuppy lowered his head and bit the plaintiff son on his right cheek removing a large portion of flesh. The injury ultimately required surgery and resulted in a permanent scar on the boy’s right cheek.
The farm had signs posted that clearly stated, “Do not pet or feed the horses.”
All of us with horses can visualize this type of event. I frequently find strangers and their children standing at the fence line and either patting or feeding the horses at our barn. Most of them wouldn’t dream of putting their small children in a pen with a Rottweiler or Pit Bull, but think nothing of letting their kids stand on a fence, leaning into a field with a piece of carrot dangling between its fingers. I’ve even found people IN the paddock trying to feed an animal that weighs more than 1,000 pounds and which wears steel shoes.
Okay, rant over. Back to this case.
The plaintiff family claimed negligence, saying that the Defendants knew, or should have known, that horses belong to a “species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious”. That partial quote comes from Bischoff, a case dating back to 1914 about a bite by a domestic cat. It is this case law which has formed the basis of the appeal.
In 2010, the lower court found the Defendants not liable because they had no prior notice that this particular horse had a tendency to bit. A New Haven judge sided with the horse’s owner and ruled that the plaintiff father failed to prove the owner knew of previous incidents of aggression by Scuppy. Timothy Astriab, who owned the horses and the nursery (and who had a boarding operation) testified that neither he nor anyone else had ever seen Scuppy bite a person before and that in 28 years, none of the horses at the farm bit or injured anyone.
In 2012, the Appellate court found that the injury suffered by the boy was foreseeable and the owners of the farm had a duty to use reasonable care to restrain the animal to prevent injury. It was during this phase of the case that the court also considered whether the Defendants had any responsibility to forsee that horses, as a species, met the “vicious” standard set forth in Bischoff.
The court went on to say that ‘‘the law makes no distinction between an animal dangerous from viciousness and one merely mischievous or dangerous from playfulness, but puts on the owner of both the duty of restraint when he knows of the animal’s propensities’’); Groner v.Hedrick, 403 Pa. 148, 151, 169 A.2d 302 (1961) (‘‘[s]ince intention forms no part of an animal’s assault and battery,
the mood in which it inflicts harm is immaterial, so far as the owner’s duty goes.”
There is no doubt that horses can cause harm. They are large, prey animals with a strong flight instinct. Most of the harm that I’ve seen caused by horses is the result of fear-based reactions or simply because they are so large — one of my biggest fears when I see children climbing on our fence is that one of the horses will swing their heads toward the child and inadvertently hit and hurt them. I have, on a few occasions, encountered horses that were aggressive and they, quite frankly, scared the crap out of me.
What do you think about the case?