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Are all Horses "Vicious or Dangerous"? More on the Connecticut Supreme Court Case

Many in the industry have been discussing the Connecticut Supreme Court case of Vendrella v. Astriab Family Limited Partnership. Oral arguments took place recently, and we await an opinion.  

Facts and Procedural History

The defendant in Vendrella operated Glendale Farm, located in in Milford, Connecticut, which sold flowers, vegetables and also offered horse boarding services. Customers in its retail operations could see and sometimes interact with the horses. In May 2006, plaintiff, a two-year-old boy, accompanied his father to the defendant’s greenhouse store to buy plants. His father parked in a customer lot adjacent to a paddock with three horses. After putting the newly bought plants in the car, plaintiff’s father brought him over to the horses, and they saw “Scuppy.” While plaintiff looked on, his father petted “Scuppy,” but the horse suddenly bit plaintiff on the right cheek, causing injuries.

The lawsuit alleged negligence and recklessness on part of the defendants. They filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that they were not on notice of any “vicious or dangerous” history of “Scuppy.” In support, they produced an affidavit stating that the horse, in the 28 years defendant Astriab owned it, never bit or injured anyone. In opposing the motion at the trial court level, the plaintiff argued that "a horse, by its very nature, is capable of biting someone without provocation or predisposition and that this was known to the defendant.” The plaintiff also filed a veterinarian's affidavit which stated, among other things, that “biting is a natural part of horses’ lives, and horses can bite for many reasons.” In addition, the plaintiff also filed an affidavit of a captain of the local fire department stating horses “have been [biting] since the beginning of time” and that a horse’s propensity to bite is part of its nature. Even one of the defendants conceded, very generally, that “a horse could bite you.”

Dismissing the case, the trial court held: ‘The plaintiffs have failed to show, as they must, that the defendants were on notice that Scuppy specifically, and not horses generally, had a tendency to bite people or other horses. Therefore, the defendants owed no duty to the plaintiffs and are entitled to judgment on the plaintiff[s’] negligence claims as a matter of law.’’ (Emphasis original.) The Connecticut Court of Appeals reversed however. Here’s a link (We have identified that the following link is no longer active, and it has been removed) to its ruling. Thereafter, Connecticut's Supreme Court accepted the case.

The Issue

Is a horse owner chargeable, as a matter of law, with knowledge of vicious or dangerous propensities — even if the horse had no aggressive history — merely because the horse is a horse?

The Court of Appeals' Reasoning

The Connecticut Supreme Court is now considering whether to affirm or overturn the Court of Appeals' adverse ruling. The Court of Appeals ruled that dismissal was wrong, and a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether horses generally possess natural tendencies to bite and injure people. The Court appeared to suggest that the defendant horse owner, as a matter of law, was somehow chargeable with knowledge of "Scuppy's" “viciousness” and therefore had a duty to use reasonable care to prevent people from interacting with the horse.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court of Appeals discussed the law of strict liability as applied to animals and recognized that “[t]he defining characteristic of liability" is that it ‘‘imposes strict liability upon a possessor of a domestic animal only when the possessor knows, or has reason to know, that the animal has dangerous propensities abnormal to its class.’’ Yet, at the same time the Court took into account that horses have a natural "propensity" to kick and bite, stating: "Knowledge by an owner of the vicious propensities of his or her particular animal is not always essential to a recovery in an action for injuries alleged to have been caused by the owner’s negligence. The owner of a domestic animal is chargeable with knowledge of the general propensities of certain animals and he or she must exercise due care to prevent injury from reasonably anticipated conduct." Citing 4 Am. Jur. 2d 434, Animals § 68 (2007). Taking it a step further, the Court looked to Connecticut law that appeared to blur the distinction between an animal's “vicious propensity" and its mere capability of hurting someone.

CONCLUSION

Connecticut's Supreme Court has the opportunity to get it right. A favorable ruling would distinguish a horse's mere "capability" of hurting people from a true, and unique "vicious propensity." An unfavorable ruling could inextricably connect a "capability" of causing harm with a "vicious propensity" for all horses. The latter would unquestionably be harmful to the equine industry.

Connecticut's equine industry is substantial. According to a study of the Connecticut horse industry a few years ago, Connecticut was estimated to have a higher population of horses (51,968, as of the report) than any other New England state and ranked 3rd in the density of horses nationwide (calculated by taking estimated number of horses and dividing by area of the state in square miles). This is an industry in need of protection. We'll keep you posted on the Connecticut Supreme Court's ruling after we receive it.

Categories: Liability

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is considered to be one of the nation's leading attorneys in the field of equine law. A frequent author and speaker on legal issues, she has written over 400 published articles, three books, and has lectured at seminars, conventions, and conferences in 29 states on issues involving law, liability, risk management, and insurance. For more information, please also visit www.fershtmanlaw.com and www.equinelaw.net, and www.equinelaw.info.

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Julie Fershtman, author of our popular and prolific Equine Law Blog, was interviewed by the State Bar of Michigan. The interview, which called Fershtman "Lawyer-Blogger," discussed our Equine Law Blog. We truly believe that this blog is the nation's most active blog serving the equine industry on equine law topics, and we thank you for visiting it. Read more here.

Julie Fershtman’s Recent and Upcoming Equine Law Speaking Engagements Include:

National Conference on Equine Law in Louisville, Kentucky on April 29, 2020. Topic will be on Waivers/Releases of Liability Involving Minor Participants. 

U.S. Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) Annual Convention in Denver, Colorado on December 10, 2019. Topic will be on Equine Liability. 

IRMI Emmett J. Vaughan Agribusiness Conference (“AgriCon”) in Sacramento, CA (April 2019), and Richmond, VA (June 2019) and in Des Moines, IA (September 2019), on topics of “Equine Activity Liability Acts” and “Equine Mortality Insurance Disputes.”

National Conference on Equine Law in May 2019 in Lexington, KY, on the topic of “Equine Activity Liability Act Updates” and liabilities involving hosting of equine clinics. 

Agricultural Claims Conference in Kansas City, MO, in March 2019 on topics of “Loose Livestock Liabilities.”

2018 American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL, on “Equine Mortality Coverage and Disputes.”

November 2018, American Horse Council webinar on “Equine Liability.”

Honors & Recognitions

Equine lawyer, Julie Fershtman, has received these prestigious equine industry awards from respected equine organizations:

"Excellence in the Advancement of Animal Law Award" - American Bar Association Tort Trial & Insurance Law Section Animal Law Committee

"Distinguished Service Award" - American Youth Horse Council

"Industry Service Award" - Michigan Equine Partnership

"Catalyst Award"- Michigan Horse Council

"Outstanding Achievement Award" - American Riding Instructors Association 

"Partner in Safety Award" - American Riding Instructors Association 

"Associate Service Award" - United Professional Horseman's Association

"National Partnership in Safety" Award" - Certified Horsemanship Association 

What our Equine Law Services can Provide

Handling breach of contract, fraud/ misrepresentation, commercial code, and other claims involving equine-related transactions including purchases/sales, leases, mare leases/foal transfers, and partnerships.

Litigating disputes in court or through alternative dispute resolution (arbitration, mediation, facilitation).

Defending equine/farm/equestrian industry professionals,  businesses, and associations in personal injury claims and lawsuits.

Drafting and negotiating contracts for boarding, training, sales, waivers/releases, leases, and numerous other equine-related transactions.

Representing and advising insurers on  coverage and policy language as well as litigation;

Advising equine industry clubs and associations regarding management, rules, bylaws, disputes, and regulations.

Representing some of the equine industry's top trainers, competitors, stables, and associations.

Counseling industry professionals, stable managers, and individual horse owners. 

THE NATION'S MOST SOUGHT-AFTER EQUINE LAW SPEAKER

Did you know Julie Fershtman has spoken at the American Horse Council Annual Meeting, Equine Affaire, Midwest Horse Fair, Equitana USA, US Dressage Federation Annual Meeting, North American Riding for the Handicapped (now PATH International) Annual Meeting, American Morgan Horse Association Annual Meeting, American Paint Horse Association Annual Meeting, US Pony Clubs, Inc.'s Annual Meeting, All-American Quarter Horse Congress, American Youth Horse Council Annual Meeting, American Riding Instructors Association Annual Meeting, CHA Annual Meeting, and numerous others? Consider signing her up for your convention. Contact Julie.

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