Horse Owners Beware - The Risk of Strict Liability Claims Remains

Horse owners in the Westcountry are being warned they could still be held ‘strictly liable' for some accidents involving horses and other animals.

Kelvin Farmaner, partner and head of the insurance litigation team at Trethowans LLP Solicitors believes that although recent developments have been positive for owners and others who may face claims against them for causing injury and damage, the compensation culture is not over.

"Horse owners would do well not to get too carried away, even though Ken Clarke recently announced he intends to do away with the current generation of "no win, no fee" cases by making success fees and ‘After the Event' insurance premiums irrecoverable from the losing side in a dispute".

Kelvin says The Animals Act 1971 is a much debated piece of legislation, "Section 2 (1) of the Act says that the keeper of an animal that is a "dangerous species" is strictly liable for the damage it causes."

Dangerous species are those not commonly domesticated in Britain and when fully-grown normally have characteristics that are likely, unless restrained, to cause severe damage or damage that is likely to be severe.

But Kelvin says section 2 (2) of the Act includes strict liability in certain circumstances for damage caused by an animal that is not a dangerous species.

Kelvin Farmaner represented one of the parties in the leading case on this, namely Mirvahedy v Henley, in the House of Lords. Mr Mirvahedy was a hotel manager working in South Devon. He was driving home from work along the A380 when his car collided with a horse which ran across the road. In the collision he suffered serious injuries and brought a negligence claim saying the Henleys (the keepers of the horse) had not fenced the field properly and this allowed the horse to get out. The court rejected that claim but it was alleged the Henleys were still liable for the damage caused by their runaway horse under The Animals Act 1971, even if they had done all they could to make sure the fencing was adequate.

The Court of Appeal and the House of Lords upheld strict liability against the Henleys. They said Section 2 (2) provided two separate elements of liability. The keeper of a horse could be liable where the behaviour was not normally found in animals of the same species and the keeper could also be liable where the behaviour, although not generally displayed by animals of that species, was normal in particular circumstances or at particular times.

In this case, the keepers of the horse were liable because the horse's behaviour in stampeding through the fencing and undergrowth onto the road was normal in the particular circumstances; bearing in mind the horse had somehow been spooked.

Kelvin adds that subsequent cases have attempted to narrow the level of a horse owner's liability, but strict liability remains. He says attempts to introduce new legislation have so far failed.

Paul Haddrell, Claims Manager with South West General Insurance firm, Cornish Mutual adds "We continue to see a high level of claims made against horse owners' year on year for accidents involving their horse or other animals. The nature of owning a horse means these claims can be high in value and so this, combined with the specialist laws that apply to those cases, makes taking out the right insurance cover at the right level an absolute necessity."

This article has been published in Western Morning News and Western Daily Press (13th May 2011 Editions).