The High Court has decided that the owner of an animal that escapes into traffic and causes an accident will not always be strictly liable for that animal’s actions.
Earlier this month, the court issued a judgement in the long-running case of Schoultz v Ball and Others, which said that unless the escaped animal had been frightened or panicked into acting erratically, the animal’s owner may not be found strictly liable under s2(2) of the Animals Act 1971.
Major law firm Clyde & Co, which represented the insurer of horse owner Vicki Ball, said that under the Animals Act 1971, claimants must demonstrate that an animal was showing “an abnormal characteristic” such as fright or panic to be able to make a successful claim under the act.
The case arose in 2015 when Ball’s horse, named Lowri, escaped and ran into traffic at the A3 Road near Esher. Taxi passenger Sofia Schoultz suffered major injuries when the vehicle she was in collided with the horse.
“This judgement is particularly encouraging for both animal owners and their insurers,” said Clare Garnett (pictured above), partner at Clyde & Co. “What it means is the mere fact that your horse or animal escaped from a commercial facility such as a stable in which you had confidence does not automatically render you liable if it is then involved in an accident on the highway.
“If animals such as cows, dogs, foxes or deer are found to be on the road and cause an accident by mere result of them being there, claimants will no longer have a smooth route to recovery in law,” Garnett said. “What this judgement makes clear is that it is all about the circumstances leading to the accident, including the behaviours of the animals and any external stimulus acting upon them. Importantly, this case reiterates the importance of insurance for horse and livestock owners. That said, we have enormous sympathy for the claimant and her injuries.”
The claimant’s side argued that the horses had escaped from their field after being subjected to “an adverse stimulus which they perceived as threatening”. However, the court rejected this argument, citing evidence that the fence in the field was down due to inadequate installation, which gave the horses access to the road.
“My findings about Lowri’s behaviour on the night of the collision do not support the claimant’s pleaded case that Lowri acted unpredictably (and ‘reacted with force’) in circumstances where she was frightened/panicked,” said Judge Melissa Clark. “Accordingly, I cannot find, as the claimant asks me to find, that the likelihood of the damage to the claimant, or of its being severe, was due to characteristics of Lowri which are not normally found in horses except at particular times or in particular circumstances.”