The Connecticut Supreme Court has issued its eagerly anticipated opinion in Vendrella, et al vs. Astriab Family Limited Partnership et al,
or what has become known as the “vicious horse” case. The lawsuit centers around a horse named Scuppy which bit two-year old Anthony Vendrella in the face as the child fed it grass while visiting the Astriabs’ farm-plant nursery. It gained national attention because the state’s highest court was asked to decide whether horses belong to a class of animals that is naturally mischievous (i.e naturally inclined to do an act that might endanger the safety of persons or property) and whether the owner (or keeper) of a domesticated horse that has never displayed “mischievous” propensities (i.e., biting) has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent injuries that are foreseeable because horses have naturally “mischievous” propensities.
In finding for the plaintiff child and his family, the Court rejected the horse owner’s/keeper’s argument that they should be immune from any liability for injuries caused by a horse even if they were negligent in controlling the animal. The Court summarized its ruling by stating, “We conclude that, as a matter of law, the owner or keeper of a domestic animal has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the animal from causing injuries that are foreseeable because the animal belongs to a class of animals that is naturally inclined to cause such injuries, regardless of whether the animal had previously caused an injury or was roaming at large.” The Court further held that “horses, as a species, have a natural inclination to bite” and that owners (and keepers) of horses may be held liable for negligence if they fail to take reasonable steps and an injury results.
What the Connecticut Supreme Court Didn’t Say: While it sounds like the Connecticut Supreme Court justices take a dim view of horses as warm and fuzzy creatures, horse owners can take some comfort in knowing that the Court did not rule that all horses may automatically be presumed to be vicious, nor did it impose a strict liability standard on horse owners/keepers. Rather, the Court held that the issue of a horse’s dangerous nature must be decided on a case-by-case basis. In the Vendrella case (which will be sent back to the trial court for final determination of liability), the court ruled that it is up to the jury to decide two questions: first, whether the horse was dangerous, thus making injury foreseeable, and second, whether the horse owner/keeper was negligent in meeting a standard of care in controlling the horse.
Don’t shoot us. We’re just the messenger here. But predictably this court’s “a horse is a horse, of course, of course” ruling has alarmed many in the equine world who fear that the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision will open the flood gates to higher (perhaps impossibly higher) insurance premiums. It is important to understand that this decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court is binding (in other words, is the law) only in Connecticut and not in any other states, although other state courts may look to this decision for guidance in ruling on similar cases before them.
In an effort to head off potential insurance rate hikes due to additional liability, Connecticut Governor Malloy proposed legislation that would specifically designate that horses are not vicious. “While we are still reviewing the opinion released today by the Supreme Court, at first glance, it appears that our legislation is all the more timely,” Malloy said.
The proposed legislation (Connecticut House Bill No. HB05044) was unanimously reported out of the Environmental Committee, one of the first steps to getting the bill before the legislature for a vote. Connecticut State Representative and horse owner Diana Urban supports the Governor’s proposed legislation and said, “What happens if they take this ruling, which I don’t think is a Draconian ruling, and they decide that this means that horses are vicious and the insurance companies get in the middle of it and make it impossible to have a horse? That’s why I think it’s really good he’s continuing down the avenue he’s on.
Whether insurance companies use this case as grounds to increase their rates is yet to be seen. But in the meantime, horse owners and keepers everywhere would do well to take notice that cases like the Vendrella case are only a horse bite or a kick away and that they should take all reasonable steps to protect others from harm and themselves from liability.
Article by Susan Quinn, Esq.