Horse owners applaud common-sense decision

23 May 2012

This article appeared in the Western Morning News and on on Friday 18 May 2012.

Owners of horses and other domestic animals have for some time found it difficult to defend claims made against them for damage caused by their animals.  This is due to the stringent strict liability laws imposed by the Animals Act 1971.  The Animals Act is not the clearest piece of legislation and there have been several attempts to clarify it’s meaning over the years and to clarify the extent of the responsibility of horse owners.  One such case, which will be well known to regular readers, is Mirvahedy v Henley.

However, in the case of Kara Goldsmith v Robert Bradley Patchcott 2012 the Court of Appeal has clarified the operation of the so-called volenti, or voluntary assumption of risk, defence provided by the Animals Act 1971 in a helpful and common-sense decision for horse owners.

The background here is the Animals Act 1971 and the Mirvahedy case. 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 (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 that 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.

The background to the Kara Goldsmith case is that the Claimant had been riding a horse named Red, which was being looked after by the Defendant whilst he tried to re-home him. The Claimant was an experienced horsewoman and was considering taking the horse. During the ride the horse reared up and the Claimant was thrown to the ground. She was struck by the horse’s hoof and suffered severe facial injures.

The Claimant again claimed damages on the basis of strict liability under section 2 (2) of the Animals Act 1971. The Court of Appeal decided that the requirements of Section 2 (2) were satisfied. However, Section 5 (2) of the Act provides a defence if the damage is suffered by a person who has voluntarily accepted the risk of damage occurring. The Claimant argued that although she was aware Red could be startled and buck she had only accepted the risk of normal bucking rather than the violent bucking which in fact occurred. The Court rejected this narrow interpretation stating that "It was not a prerequisite of the statutory defence to strict liability under the Animals Act 1971 s.5 (2) for injuries caused by dangerous animals that the person injured should foresee the precise degree of energy with which the animal would engage in its characteristic behaviour".
This is a useful reminder to horse owners that whilst they can be held strictly liable for the damage caused by their horse, that does not mean the court will disregard the Claimant's own behaviour.