UK & Europe
The owner of an animal that escapes into traffic and causes an accident will not always be strictly liable for that animal’s actions, a new judgment from the High Court makes clear.
According to the court’s judgement in the long-running case of Schoultz v Ball and Others this month, unless the escaped animal had been frightened or panicked into acting erratically, the animal’s owner may not be found strictly liable under s2(2) of the Animals Act 1971.
Global law firm Clyde & Co, which acted in the case, said the judgment made it clear that, under the Animals Act 1971, claimants needed to demonstrate that an animal was displaying ‘an abnormal characteristic’ such as fright or panic in order to claim successfully under the Act.
The claim arose from an accident in 2015 when Sofia Schoultz, a passenger in a taxi travelling on the A3 near Esher, suffered catastrophic injuries when her vehicle was in collision with an escaped horse. The horse was owned by Vicki Ball, whose insurer was represented by Clyde & Co.
Clare Garnett, a partner with Clyde & Co, said: “This judgment is particularly encouraging for both animal owners and their insurers. What it means is the mere fact that your horse or animal escaped from a commercial facility such as a stable in which you had confidence in, does not automatically render you liable if it is then involved in an accident on the highway.
“If animals such as cows, dogs, foxes or deer are found to be on the road and cause an accident by mere result of them being there, claimants will no longer have a smooth route to recovery in law. What this judgment makes clear is that it is all about the circumstances leading to the accident, including the behaviours of the animals and any external stimulus acting upon them.
“Importantly, this case reiterates the importance of insurance for horse and livestock owners. That said, we have enormous sympathy for the claimant and her injuries.”
While sympathising with the claimant, Her Honour Judge Melissa Clark said: “My findings about Lowri’s [the horse’s] behaviour on the night of the collision do not support the Claimant’s pleaded case that Lowri acted unpredictably (and ‘reacted with force’) in circumstances where she was frightened/panicked…Accordingly I cannot find, as the Claimant asks me to find, that the likelihood of the damage to the Claimant, or of its being severe, was due to characteristics of Lowri which are not normally found in horses except at particular times or in particular circumstances.”
The judgment was handed down by the High Court on 3 October following the trial, which took place over 14–17 June. The claimant’s case was founded on the idea that the horses had escaped from their field after being subjected to ‘an adverse stimulus which they perceived as threatening’. However, the court rejected this argument following evidence that the fence in the field was down due to inadequate installation, allowing the horses access to the road.
The court said that the horse’s owner Vicki Ball was ‘an innocent party’.
The Clyde & Co team was led by Partner, Clare Garnett, and Paralegal, Charlotte Forsey. Harriet Jerram and Nathan Tavares KC of Outer Temple Chambers were instructed as Counsel.