Horse owners in the state of Connecticut as well as across the nation can breathe a small sigh of legal liability relief as last week that state’s legislature passed a law stating that domesticated horses are not to be presumed “naturally mischievous or vicious.”
This legislation came about in the wake of the case Vendrella et al vs. Astriab Family Limited Partnership et al involving a horse bite to a small child andin which the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that “horses, as a species, have a natural inclination to bite.”
While not binding on all states, that ruling could be used to provide guidance to other state courts dealing with similar lawsuits. Thus, the ruling in the Vendrella case sent shock waves through horse owners everywhere with fears that liability insurance premiums would skyrocket and potentially put the entire equine industry in jeopardy.
Passed by unanimous vote, Connecticut HB 5044 (Public Act 14-54) states, “In any civil action brought against the owner or keeper of any horse, pony, donkey or mule, such horse, pony, donkey or mule shall not be found to belong to a species that possesses a naturally mischievous or vicious propensity.” The law also retains a provision which bars strict liability against owners and keepers of these animals. The bill becomes law upon the signature of Governor Dannel P. Malloy who initially proposed the legislation to protect the important equine industry of his state.
Does this mean that horse owners are off the hook entirely when it comes to all liability for any injury or damages caused by their horses? Absolutely not. The new law merely rebuts an automatic legal presumption that horses are vicious and that injury is always foreseeable thus making a negligence claim all but a foregone conclusion. Horse owners and keepers can still be held liable for negligence if they breach a reasonable standard of care where their horses are concerned. However, rather than presuming all horses to be inherently vicious or dangerous, negligence cases under Connecticut law are to be decided on a case-by-case, fact-specific basis.
Bottom line: The Vendrella case which created the legal presumption that horses are inherently dangerous should serve as a warning shot across the bow for all of us involved with horses. Fortunately, the Connecticut legislature stepped in to protect horse owners by codifying that horses are not to be presumed to be vicious or dangerous. Perhaps other states would do well to follow Connecticut’s lead by enacting similar legislation. However, while Connecticut lawmakers codified that horses are not to be presumed inherently vicious, they did not enact a law that allows a horse owner/keeper the privilege to throw caution to the wind and be negligent.
Article by Susan Quinn, Esq.