Horse Owners Say Case Could Have Far-Reaching Impact
If one horse bites a person, does that make all equines dangerous?
The biting horse in question, a gelding named Scuppy, did not appear before the Connecticut Supreme Court last week. But his name could go down in history as the horse that created a new legal standard in the state for domesticated animal liability cases.
Scuppy was a regular along the roadside fence at Timothy Astriab's Glendale Farm in Milford. According to court records, in 2006, a small boy named Anthony Vendrella Jr. was bitten on the cheek when he tried to pat Scuppy through a fence.
Vendrella's family sued the farm, claiming negligence. But for more than seven years, their ability to pursue that claim has been entangled in legal arguments over whether the owner or keeper of a horse — in this case, the Milford farm — needs some sort of prior warning that a horse could be dangerous before it is liable for its actions.
The plaintiffs said that no such notice was needed, that livestock such as horses can be inherently dangerous, regardless of the temperament of the individual annual.
The defense took issue with that argument, saying each horse needed to be judged on its own merits. In this case, the defendants noted that Scuppy had never previously shown any interest in biting anything but bits of grass. Nor had any other horse in the 28 years the farm had been in operation. Therefore, Astriab argued, he was under no legal obligation to post a sign warning the public to stay away from Scuppy.
The trial court agreed, accepting a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the defendants. But in 2012, the Connecticut Appellate Court, in a first-in-the-nation type of decision, found that all horses have a tendency to bite and all people should be wary of them. In its decision, the Appellate Court ruled that horses are a class of domestic animal that have "a propensity to bite and be vicious."
Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Vendrella v. Astriab Limited Partnership. If the justices let the Appellate Court ruling stand, the Vendrella family will be able to pursue their lawsuit at the Superior Court level. "It should be a question for a jury," the Vendrella's lawyer, Hugh D. Hughes, told the Supreme Court.
The hearing captured the attention of horse lovers from across the state and beyond. An amicus brief was filed in support of the farm by the Connecticut Farm Bureau and the Connecticut Horse Council Inc., which represent the owners of more than 51,000 horses in the state.