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Strict liability and non- dangerous animals

Court of Appeal provides useful guidance given for horse owners on strict liability under Animals Act

The Court of Appeal, in the recent case of Ford v Seymour-Williams [2021] EWCA Civ. 1848, has provided welcome guidance on the correct approach to be taken in relation to strict liability for keepers of non-dangerous animals.

Strict liability for keepers of non-dangerous animals is set out at Section 2 (2) of the Animals Act 1971 (‘the Act’). It says that a keeper of an animal of a non-dangerous species is liable if: 

  1. The damage is of a kind which the animal, unless restrained, was likely to cause or which, if caused by the animal, was likely to be severe; and
  2. The likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to characteristics of the animal which are not normally found in animals of the same species or are not normally so found except at particular times or in particular circumstances; and
  3. Those characteristics were known to the keeper or were at any time known to a person who at that time had charge of the animal as that keeper’s servant or, where that keeper is the head of a household, were known to another keeper of the animal who is a member of that household and under the age of sixteen.

Ford v Seymour-Williams

In Ford v Seymour-Williams, the Court of Appeal considered the scope of the strict liability obligation that arises under Section 2 (2) of the Act.

During a hunting session in 2018, the claimant tragically sustained severe injuries when her horse reared and fell on top of her. Sadly, the horse, a 16.1hh gelding hunter called Tommy, died shortly after the event. The claimant subsequently brought a claim for personal injuries and consequential losses against the keeper of the horse, her employer, on the basis that he was strictly liable for her injuries under Section 2 (2).  

The claimant argued that where expert evidence, as here, had established that a horse only displayed the characteristic of rearing in particular times or circumstances, she did not have to identify which particular circumstance had caused it to rear. She further argued that, under the Act, she was only required to prove that the keeper knew a horse could rear or alternatively that a horse could rear whilst panicking or being disobedient.

Unsurprisingly, the claim was defended on the basis that the claimant was required to prove the ‘particular times or circumstances’ which had caused the horse to rear. It was further argued by the defendant that the horse had most likely reared due to a cardiovascular event (which did not amount to characteristic behaviour under the Act) and its keeper did not have any knowledge that a horse could rear in this specific scenario.

At the liability trial, the court found that the rearing of the horse had caused the claimant’s severe injuries and that the horse had most likely reared as a result of a cardiovascular event. The judge dismissed the claim as the ‘particular circumstance’ which had caused the horse to rear (the cardiovascular event), was not known to the keeper and accordingly the keeper did not have the required knowledge to satisfy sub section 2 (2)(c) of the Act.

The issues to be determined by the Court of Appel concerned the interpretation of the second limb of subsection 2(2)(b) (the animal’s characteristics found at ‘particular times or in particular circumstances’) and its relationship to subsection 2(2)(c) of the Act (knowledge or presumed knowledge on the part of the keeper).

Delivering the lead judgment, Lady Justice Carr reminded us that the purpose of Section 2(2) was to impose strict liability on the keeper of a non-dangerous species if the damage sustained by a claimant had resulted from the animal’s dangerous characteristics, which were known to the keeper. Strict liability was only established if all 3 limbs of Section 2(2) were satisfied.

A review of past case law had established that for a keeper to be held liable:

  1. The characteristic behaviour under Section 2(2) had been identified
  2. The particular time or circumstance when the characteristic had occurred had also been identified (and the time or circumstance could be “described and predicted”)
  3. The damage must be due to the characteristic behaviour of the animal
  4. The keeper had known that the event that had triggered the characteristic behaviour could lead to severe damage; and
  5. A keeper simply needed to have knowledge of the index characteristics in the animal’s species, rather than in the individual animal.

The Court of Appeal held that subsections 2(2)(b) and 2(2)(c) must be considered together as a finding as to the ‘particular times’ or ‘particular circumstances’ during which the characteristics of the animal had arisen was necessary in order to allow a court to then assess whether the keeper had knowledge of the characteristics, for the purpose of subsection 2(2)(c). Applying this approach to the established facts in Ford, the appeal was dismissed as the cause of the horse’s rearing was a cardiovascular event and the keeper had no prior  knowledge that rearing was associated with such an event.

Whilst strict liability under Section 2(2) of the Act remains, given the rise in Section 2(2) claims post Mirvahedy v Henley [2003] UKHL 16, the recent ruling provides positive news for the equestrian and wider rural communities, in particular. We would hope that the judgment in Ford will result in a reduction in claims where there is uncertainty as to the ‘particular times or circumstances’ that triggered an animal’s dangerous behaviour and caused severe injury.

Read the full judgment of Ford v Seymour-Williams.

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