What a Connecticut Court Case to Declare Horses “Vicious” Could Mean to You

All two-year old Anthony Vendrella wanted was to pet a horse at Glendale Farms in Milford, Conn. What he got was a bite that “removed a large chunk of his face,” according to the lawsuit documents filed by the child’s parents against the Astriab Family Limited Partnership, owners of Glendale Farms. As a result, what horse owners across the nation may be getting is a potentially disastrous state Supreme Court decision that could have far-reaching damaging consequences for horse owners and the horse industry.

Would you call this horse “Vicious”?

In May 2006, Anthony Vendrella accompanied his father to Glendale Farms, a local produce farm which also boarded horses. While petting the horses at the farm, the child was bitten severely in the face. What ensued was a lawsuit brought by the child’s parents and a trial court victory for the farm owners.

 This was then followed by appeals all the way up to the Connecticut Supreme Court to not only strike down the trial court’s ruling for the farm owners but also (and of greater importance to horse owners everywhere) to get a ruling that all horses, as a species, are inherently “vicious” animals. The case is pending before the State Supreme Court which heard oral arguments in September 2013.

This case has grabbed the attention of horse owners across the nation, and well it should. Why? Because a ruling by a state high court that all domesticated horses are inherently “vicious” could drastically change the liability landscape for horse people. Historically in the legal world, horses have been considered “domesticated animals.” As such, the general legal rule has been that a horse owner is strictly liable for injuries inflicted by a horse only if the owner knew or should have known that it possessed vicious or dangerous propensities to engage in the behavior that caused the injury.

A holding by the Connecticut Supreme Court that horses are inherently vicious and dangerous would turn that rule on its head and mean that a person injured by a horse would not have to prove that the horse owner failed to exercise due care and that the failure caused the injury. The horse owner would automatically be liable for the injury.

In effect, for legal purposes, domesticated horses would fall into the same category as the clearly dangerous and vicious lions and tigers kept in a zoo, and horse owners would need to take extraordinary and extremely costly precautions (similar to those taken at zoos with walls and barriers ) to keep their horses separated from humans, said Henry Talmage, Executive Director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association.

So why should you care how some court in Connecticut might rule? You should care because although not legally binding in other states, such a ruling, if made by the Connecticut Supreme Court, could potentially be considered as persuasive legal precedent by other state courts, perhaps yours, when making their rulings in similar horse injury cases. 

A decision that all horses are to be considered “vicious” in nature would impose strict liability on you as a horse owner, a change that would not escape the eyes of your liability insurance carrier who would likely raise your insurance premiums substantially or potentially drop your policy altogether.

So concerned are equine industry experts that the court will rule that all horses are “vicious” that the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association and the Connecticut Horse Council, Inc. in an amicus brief filed in support of the farm owners, stated, “A decision by this Court that drastically alters the long-standing law regarding the keeping of horses in Connecticut would seriously restrict the ability of the organizations’ members to continue operating their equine-related pursuits and businesses as they have for generations.” 

In Connecticut as well as in the rest of our country, that would result in a huge financial loss. Connecticut consistently ranks in the top three horse-owning states in the nation, and the horse industry contributes an estimated $220.9 million annually to its state GDP. Nationally, the horse industry contributes $39.2 billion to the GDP.

In an effort to head-off a decision unfavorable to Connecticut horse owners and the state’s equine industry, Governor Daniel P. Molloy has proposed legislation that would prohibit the designation of horses as presumptively, innately “vicious.”

“I don’t want a judicial decision to control over whether horses are inherently dangerous or vicious,” Molloy said, adding that the horse industry “is an important industry in our state, and I want that industry to continue to flourish.”

State Representative Diana Urban, a horse owner and strong supporter of the proposed legislation, said that a court decision that would deem all horses vicious could be disastrous. “If something like this came to fruition, liability insurance would basically decimate the horse industry in Connecticut. It would be insurmountable for most barns. I think it would filter down to the back yard horse owners too. It would create an opportunity for litigation,” she said.

The Governor’s proposed bill is currently in the Connecticut House of Representative’s Environment Committee and will then go to the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee where it could meet resistance from the state’s trial lawyers. Urban stated she was optimistic that the bill will make it out of committee and will ultimately pass the General Assembly and be signed into law by the Governor. However, the General Assembly is in a short session which ends in May, and time could run out on it. Urban stated that if the bill did not make it through the General Assembly this session, she would re-introduce it in the next.

For horse owners, the Vendrella case could once again prove the truth of that legal adage, “Hard cases make bad law.” We’ll be watching this important case closely and will keep you up to date on what happens.

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