More gums than teeth

Vendrella v. Astriab Family Ltd. Partnership
By Jennifer Jarvis, Esq.
(Published in the May 2014 issue of Collected Remarks, GDCTA)

Opinions regarding the recent ruling in Connecticut about the “vicious propensities” of horses have been making rounds on the internet and in many horse blogs. In light of some of the simplified summaries and alarmist headlines, the following is an examination of the case and the legal ruling as it pertains to Connecticut state law. In a subsequent blog I discuss the state of the law in Georgia and the possible implications of Vandrella for Georgia horse owners.

The Facts of the Case

Glendale Farms operates in Milford, Connecticut and consists of two public businesses: a commercial plant nursery and a horse boarding facility. Many of the nursery customers enjoyed seeing the horses and regularly asked to look at them after purchasing plants from the nursery.

In May of 2006, a father and his two-year-old son were patronizing Glendale Farms. After purchasing some plants, the father and son walked over to a paddock with three horses located next to the parking lot. A horse named Scuppy came over to see them. The father began petting Scuppy while the son watched.

When the father stopped petting Scuppy, “suddenly and without warning,” Scuppy lowered his head and bit the child on his right cheek. The bite removed a “large portion of flesh” resulting in surgery and a permanent scar. According to the father, the bite was unprovoked.

According to the owner, Scuppy had never bitten anyone before. The father sued Glendale Farms for negligence, recklessness, and for his own emotional distress.

The Legal Ruling

The question presented before the Supreme Court of Connecticut was whether horses belonged to a “species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious” and if so, whether the actions of Scuppy were foreseeable such that the owner should have taken reasonable precautions to prevent that injury.*

Connecticut law categorizes injuries caused by domestic animals into three groups. A domestic animal can either be 1) an animal that has mischievous or vicious propensities which are known by the owner (ex. a dog that has already bitten someone) 2) an animal belonging to “a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious” but no known individual propensity 3) animals that have no known individual propensities and do not belong to a species with naturally mischievous propensities.

Which category the animal goes into dictates the level of duty the owner of the animal has to others. Since Scuppy had never bitten anyone before, category 1 was not considered. However, it was not clear whether horses, as a species, would go into category 2 or category 3. If horses go into category 2, the owner has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent injuries that are foreseeable. If horses go into category 3, there would be no question of foreseeability and thus no question of liability.

The supreme court considered deposition testimony from various sources such as veterinarians, horse owners, and an animal control officer regarding the natural tendencies of horses. After considering various statements, the court determined that there was enough evidence to conclude that horses have a “natural propensity to bite.” However, the majority decision actually stopped short of legally placing horses in category 2 for all cases. Instead, they determined that since reasonable minds could differ on the propensities of horses, which category to use must be determined by the jury on a case-by-case basis.

In a sharply worded concurring opinion, Justices Zarella and Vertefeuille wrote,”Asking a jury to decide whether a particular species of domesticated animal has a natural propensity to engage in potentially harmful behavior makes no sense.” The opinion went on to state that it is a matter of “common knowledge that horses as a species have a natural propensity to nip and bite[.]”

Further, that in their opinion, the question submitted to the jury should be limited to whether the owner in this particular case, given knowledge of Scuppy’s past behavior of not biting, had taken appropriate measures to prevent foreseeable harm.

However, it is the majority opinion that is binding, and so the supreme court remanded the case back to the jury for findings on (1) whether horses have a natural propensity to be mischievous or vicious and (2) if they do, whether the owner of Scuppy had taken reasonable precautions to prevent any foreseeable harm.

Analysis

In my opinion, the reason this case garnered so much attention was the use of the word “vicious” in the Connecticut domestic animal standards. Certainly such a word is not one that most of us would ever attach to horses in general.

However, a closer reading of the statute shows that standard is “naturally inclined to do mischief OR be vicious.” I think many of us would concede that horses can be mischievous and can think of a variety of reasons Scuppy might have bitten, or nipped, the two year old.

Perhaps Scuppy came over for a treat and when the dad didn’t have one, he looked to the two year old. When the two-year-old didn’t have one, he got pushy. While a nip may not do much to an adult, on the cheek of a two year old, it could cause serious damage. Furthermore, the father may not have much experience with horses and may not have known how to read horse body language. (The facts of the case were silent on this issue)

For those of us who have spent our lives around horses, what they are thinking and how we should act or react given that knowledge, is generally pretty obvious. But for those who have limited experience around animals, much less horses, a horse with his ears laid back and nostrils snarled may look the same as one with a relaxed face and floppy ears.

For all of the attention this case got, we should take a closer look at what the final ruling did not do. The court specifically noted that the ruling does not mean that owners should be held strictly liable for injuries caused by horses (strict liability means that whether someone is negligent is irrelevant – you are liable, period). Nor did it hold that all horses have a natural propensity to bite under all circumstances, or even that horses may be presumed to be dangerous. Instead, the court stated that the question of whether horses, as a species, are naturally inclined to do mischief is one where reasonable minds could differ, and therefore, a jury must decide on a case-by-case basis whether they are.

So, as horse owners, riders, and enthusiasts, we take a deep breath and realize that this case simply reminds us of what we already knew. When anyone works with horses, the second you forget that you can get hurt is often the second you do get hurt – but we, as horse people, knowingly accept that risk. 

While we, as a group, were in an instant uproar on the use of the word ‘vicious,” and in my opinion rightly so, we cannot forget that to much of the public the horse is a quaint reminder of times gone by. Their knowledge of horses is based on Flicka, Black Beauty, and Hidalgo. When we openly invite that public to engage with our horses, without supervision, we are inviting someone to potentially get hurt.

In the end, this case was about deciding who should bear the responsibility for that potential injury. Does it absolutely rest with the owner, or is it a risk borne by those who interact with the horse? In the end, the supreme court did not answer the question. They simply put it back to the jury to decide and allowed them, in addition to considering the facts of the case, to also consider the nature of the species.

“There was also a question, based on prior case law, as to whether it mattered that the horse was loose— “roaming at large”—or contained. The court explicitly held that the location of the horse is irrelevant for a finding of liability.


Jennifer Jarvis is an attorney with the Georgia Advocate Partners. She is a dressage rider, horse owner, and member of GDCTA. The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. You should not act upon this information without consulting legal counsel.

Categories:

Comments are closed