Connecticut Courts Asked: Are Horses Inherently Dangerous?

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Milton C. Toby, an attorney and long-time horse person who is married to a veterinarian, looks at the controversy over a Connecticut court case trying to determine if horses are inherently dangerous. While the decision at this point is still vague, this could affect anyone with horses or horse activities who are not covered by state limitation of liability laws for livestock (including horses).

A recent decision handed down by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Vendrella v. Astriab Family Partnership was the latest development in a controversial personal injury lawsuit that has been winding its way with glacial speed through the state court system.

The complaint, which was filed in May 2008, sought damages for serious injuries suffered by a small boy who was bitten by a horse two years earlier. The case was sidetracked before trial, however, and became a debate in the state’s appellate courts over a more basic question: are horses, as a species, presumed to be dangerous? If the answer is “yes,” horse owners would be strictly liable for injuries caused by their animals, without the necessity of proving fault, and horse businesses in Connecticut would become virtually uninsurable.

The Supreme Court effectively dodged the issue.

Rather than deciding either that horses can be presumed to be dangerous, or that they cannot, the Court ruled instead that the owner of a domestic animal “has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the animal from causing injuries that are foreseeable because the animal belongs to a class of animals that is naturally inclined to cause such injuries.” Whether horses “have a natural inclination to bite humans,” the Court added, is a question of fact that must be decided by a jury, on a case-by-case basis.

The Court did not declare that horses, categorically, are dangerous, an outcome that many horse enthusiasts in Connecticut feared. In anticipation of that result, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed legislation providing that horses could not be presumed “vicious” in the context of personal injury lawsuits.

The decision was not a clear victory for the state’s equine community, however. Confusion is one likely result of the ruling, which left open the possibility that in a particular trial, a jury could decide that horses are inherently dangerous. That may happen in Scuppy’s case. The effect of the Court ruling was to return the dispute to the lower court for a jury trial and the possibility of another lengthy round of appeals.