In future civil actions in Connecticut, horses will not automatically be assumed to be dangerous animals by the courts. However, they do belong to “a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious,” according to the Connecticut Supreme Court, and trial judges will be asked to decide on a case-by-case basis whether there is evidence that a certain animal is dangerous.
The March 26 decision largely upheld a state Appellate Court ruling that sent a lawsuit seeking damages for a child who was bitten on the face by a horse back to Superior Court for trial.
The decision was not a total victory for the state’s equine lobby, which had worried that the Appellate Court ruling—which first used the “vicious” phrase—would result in increased liability claims against farms, stables and riding schools, and would also drive up insurance costs for such facilities.
Gov. Dannel Malloy has weighed in on the issue, and the General Assembly is considering legislation that would provide protection for the state’s horse industry. The bill states that any domesticated horse, pony, donkey or mule would not be considered vicious or dangerous under the law.
In Vendrella v. Astriab Family Limited Partnership, the Supreme Court ruled 6-0 to uphold the Appellate Court ruling. In the main opinion, Chief Justice Chase Rogers, joined by three other justices, did not find that horses as a species have dangerous propensities to cause injuries. Instead, the justices found the question of whether an animal is naturally dangerous must be considered individually by the lower courts.
“As a matter of law, the owner or keeper of a domestic animal has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the animal from causing injuries that are foreseeable … regardless of whether the animal had previously caused an injury or was roaming at large,” the justices said. Owners may be held liable for negligence if they “fail to take reasonable steps and an injury results.”
Rogers’ opinion was joined by Justices Dennis Eveleigh, Andrew McDonald and Carmen Espinosa.
Justice Peter Zarella and Senior Justice Christine Vertefeuille also voted to uphold the Appellate Court ruling, agreeing that the owner of a domestic animal has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent injuries. But in a separate concurrence, the two justices wrote that it shouldn’t be up to juries to consider the nature of the species. Instead, Zarella and Vertefeuille said jurors should be asked only if the defendants acted to prevent a specific horse from causing foreseeable harm.
The underlying case dates to 2006, when a small boy named Anthony Vendrella Jr. was bitten on the cheek when he tried to pat a horse named Scuppy through a fence at a Milford farm.
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.
When the case was argued to the high court in September 2013, horse owners shared concerns that upholding the state Appellate Court decision would deem all horses as inherently dangerous, and open them up to increased liability.
Under the ruling, it will be up to the trial court judge to determine whether the plaintiffs met their burden of proof “on the issue of dangerousness.” If that proof has been met, the trial judge must then determine whether the defendants were negligent in not controlling the horse.
Steven Seligman, who represented the farm in arguing against the appeal to the Supreme Court, said he and his clients were disappointed by the result. “My client and I need an opportunity to digest this lengthy opinion in order to determine whether we should take further action in the Supreme Court,” he said.
During oral arguments, Seligman argued that the lawsuit not be permitted to proceed because there was no prior warning that this individual horse would bite.
The defense in the original lawsuit 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, the defendants argued, they were 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 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.
That led to the appeal to the Supreme Court. During the oral arguments, lawyers for the Vendrella family argued for their right to be able to pursue their lawsuit at the Superior Court level. “It should be a question for a jury,” one of the Vendrellas’ lawyers, Hugh Hughes, told the Supreme Court.
Attorney Joseph Foti, who also represents the Vendrellas, said he’s looking forward to taking the case back to the trial court, where he hopes it will be moved quickly after eight years of appeals. “This is nothing about a vicious horse,” he said. “It’s about a horse being a horse, the natural propensity for an animal being dangerous under certain circumstances.”
Douglas Mahoney, president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, provided a statement from the organization.
“The CTLA hopes that the Vendrella decision settles any fears that the equestrian community may have had with their misinterpretation of the appellate court decision. The Supreme Court, in no uncertain terms, states that horses are not per se vicious animals. Horse owners can now feel safe knowing they will not be held to a higher standard than the rest of us,” the statement from the CTLA said. “ At the same time, victims such as Anthony Vendrella can be assured that the court room doors will not be closed to them if their injuries were caused by a horse owner’s negligence.”•