Horse Owners Say Case Could Have Far-Reaching Impact
With that decision in mind, Wilson ruled as follows: "Cats have a tendency to scratch and horses have a tendency to bite, but the plaintiffs have failed to show, as they must, that the defendants were on notice that Scuppy specifically, and not horses generally, had a tendency to bite people or other horses."
But when Vendrella took the case to the Appellate Court, the judge did find there was a legitimate question of whether the farm adequately warned the public of the tendency for horses to nip. In its ruling, the Appellate Court said "a party may establish the requisite notice" of an animal's vicious disposition by showing the "natural propensities of that species."
During the hour-long hearing before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, September 17, New Haven attorney Steven L. Seligman argued on behalf of the farm that the lawsuit not be permitted to proceed, because there was no prior warning that this individual horse — Scuppy — would bite.
"We didn't have evidence of the actual vicious propensity of horses in general, or this particular horse," Seligman said. "As such, we should not overburden people who keep animals of great utility. Until you know that a specific horse poses a risk, there should be no liability. If we have to warn everyone about everything, we essentially warn nobody about anything."
Hughes, however, argued the Vendrellas, not Scuppy, should have their day in court. The question for a jury, he said, shouldn't be whether all horses are dangerous, but whether the signage, of which there was none, was inadequate. He also said the fencing should have been designed in a way to prevent public access to the horse.
"It all goes to inadequate restraint of the horse," Hughes said to the high court. "They needed to keep people away entirely."
Amy F. Goodusky, a medical malpractice defense lawyer with O'Brien Tanski & Young in Hartford who is an avid equestrienne and former horseback riding instructor, is following the case with interest.
She disagreed with the Appellate Court's notion that horses have a propensity for viciousness. If anything, she said, "their natural response to fear is to run away, not to attack. This is a far more common behavior than any aggression like biting or kicking out."
Although no one knows how the Supreme Court will rule on the issue, or when, Goodusky said it doesn't make any more sense to classify the behavior of all horses as one, than it would for people.
"Each horse is unique," she said. "To characterize them as a species with a single trait would be like saying that all plaintiffs are crybabies who want money for nothing. Such an irresponsible generalization would be deplorable. A determination that every horse, regardless of breed, age, disposition, degree of health, training or socialization is vicious, would be similarly unconscionable."