Horse Owners Say Case Could Have Far-Reaching Impact
Doug Dubitsky, a New Windham lawyer who filed the brief, said the implications of the case could impact the ways horse owners keep their animals, and result in higher insurance costs and more lawsuits. "You wouldn't be able to pair children and horses if this stands," he said.
But the case has also caught the attention of personal injury lawyers. If the Appellate Court ruling stands, a plaintiff who seeks damages for injuries caused by a horse bite or kick will no longer have to show the owner knew that the specific animal had a history of such behavior. The decision could have far-reaching effects on the cost of liability insurance for horse owners and stables.
Matt Newman, a personal injury lawyer with Willinger, Willinger & Bucci, said he's watching closely for a decision in the case. "Sure I'm paying attention, because this could potentially lower an important threshold that a plaintiff needs to bring a lawsuit," said Newman, who represents Charla Nash, the Connecticut woman who has sued the state after being severely injured by a chimpanzee in 2009. Although the legal issues in the chimpanzee attack case are far different from the horse case, thresholds needed to pursue claims in cases involving animals are of interest to Newman and others with personal injury practices.
"If the Supreme Court affirms the Appellate Court," he said, "then a claimant won't have to prove an essential element of the case, that an animal owner knew that particular animal was dangerous. That would be significant."
The decision won't impact dog bite lawsuits, because they are covered under their own distinct state statute. And wild animals that are kept as pets, such as apes, bears and tigers, also require owners to exercise extra care to protect people from injury, Newman said. "But it could come into play in personal injury cases involving not only horses, but other domestic animals, like cows, goats, and cats," Newman said.
Also at stake is a history of common law that goes back to the 17th century, when the so-called "one-bite rule" was established. Under that rule, the owner of an animal was blameless for biting injuries, as long as the owner had no prior warning that the animal might bite anyone.
That analysis was at the center of the Superior Court Judge Robin L. Wilson, when she initially ruled that the lawsuit brought by the Vendrellas' should be dismissed. Wilson reviewed several relevant Connecticut cases on the subject, including a 1912 New Haven case involving a horse that was tied to a wagon.
Wilson also looked to a 2008 summary judgment decision in Allen v. Cox, which involved a cat that injured a person after it was allowed to roam free. The trial judge in that case had dismissed the plaintiff's lawsuit on the ground that there was "no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendants' cat has displayed any vicious or mischievous tendencies toward people."
The Connecticut Supreme Court, however, later reversed the judgment of the trial court. It its decision, the high court looked to other jurisdictions. It relied on the specific facts of the case, including the fact that the cat was roaming free.