"The majority did not rule that horses have dangerous propensities or are naturally inclined to cause injuries," according to a summary of the court's opinion. "It did rule, however, that the question of whether an animal has dangerous propensities or is naturally inclined to cause injuries must be made on a case-by-case basis before the trier of fact in the Superior Court."
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers boils it down this way:
"The primary issue that we must resolve in this case is whether the keeper of a horse has a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent the horse from causing injuries to others when the particular horse has not previously exhibited mischievous propensities, but the trier of facts reasonably could find that horses as a species have a natural propensity to bite."
After a lengthy analysis of case law and the facts of this particular case, Rogers states:
"We therefore conclude that 'one who possesses or harbors a domestic animal that he does not know or have reason to know to be abnormally dangerous, is subject to liability for harm done by the animal if, but only if . . . he is negligent in failing to prevent the harm...’"
In other words, the owner of a horse must prevent it from hurting people. And any case that claims damages as a result of such an instance, like the one at hand, should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, the court ruling states.
Read the court's opinion in its entirety.
The court's decision stems from a case that dates back to 2006, when a boy was bit in the face by a horse named Scuppy at Glendale Farms in Milford, Conn.
Horse industry representatives have warned of the ruling's consequences.
"Please understand that if horses are determined to be 'vicious animals' they would be uninsurable and any and all uses would be affected," Frederick J. Mastele, Acting President of the Connecticut Horse Council, wrote in a letter published on Patch in October 2013. "Training and boarding stables, therapeutic riding, horse camps, petting zoos, trail riding, and other horse related uses and activities would be impacted."
WNPR reports that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last month introduced legislation which would specify that domesticated horses, ponies, donkeys and mules are not “inherently dangerous” and do not “possess a vicious propensity.”
According to an article by the Associated Press, the horse industry contributes more than $200 million a year to the state's economy.
Summary of the Court's Opinion
The plaintiffs, Anthony Vendrella and his 2-year-old son, sought to recover damages from the defendants, Astriab Family Limited Partnership and Timothy D. Astriab, who owned and operated Glendale Farms in Milford. The plaintiffs wanted to be compensated for personal injuries to the child when he was bit on May 18, 2006, by a horse named Scuppy on the defendants' property.
Glendale Farms is a garden center that also provides horse boarding services, and Scuppy was in a fenced area that garden center customers regularly visited to see the horses. After the child's father had stopped petting the horse, Scuppy, without warning, lowered his head over the fence and bit the child's face.
The plaintiffs sought damages for the defendants' alleged negligence and recklessness. In turn, the defendants asked a Superior Court judge to dismiss the lawsuit without a trial (motion for summary judgment), claiming that they did not have any knowledge that Scuppy would either bite the child or have the propensity to do so.
The plaintiffs opposed the defendants' motion for summary judgment, claiming that the defendants should have known that any horse, by its very nature, is capable of biting a person without provocation or predisposition. The plaintiffs also provided evidence acknowledging a horse's natural disposition to bite. The Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit without a trial, concluding that the plaintiffs had failed to show that the defendants knew that Scuppy, specifically, and not horses in general, had a tendency to bite.
Mr. Vendrella then appealed to the Appellate Court, which reversed the Superior Court judge's decision. The Appellate Court concluded that the trier of fact (the Superior Court judge or jury) must determine first, whether horses as a class of animals possess a natural propensity to bite, and if so, whether it was foreseeable that Scuppy would bite.
Accordingly, the Appellate Court returned the case to the Superior Court to determine via the trier of fact whether the child's injury was reasonably foreseeable because Scuppy belonged to a class of animals having naturally dangerous propensities.
The defendants then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments on Sept. 24, 2013. The justices in a ruling released today upheld the Appellate Court's decision.
Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers authored the majority opinion and was joined by Associate Justices Dennis G. Eveleigh, Andrew J. McDonald and Carmen E. Espinosa. Justice Peter T. Zarella and Senior Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille also voted to uphold the Appellate Court's ruling, but disagreed with the majority opinion's reasoning.
The majority did not rule that horses have dangerous propensities or are naturally inclined to cause injuries. It did rule, however, that the question of whether an animal has dangerous propensities or is naturally inclined to cause injuries must be made on a case-by-case basis before the trier of fact in the Superior Court.
According to the majority, the trier of fact must determine whether the plaintiffs met their burden of proof on the issue of dangerousness and, if so, whether the defendants were negligent in controlling Scuppy. As such, the Supreme Court ordered the case back to the Superior Court for further proceedings.