If an animal injures someone or causes damage to property, the owner of the animal may be liable under the Animals Act 1971 (the Act).  The Act imposes strict liability on the owner of an animal that escapes and causes damage to land, buildings or people.  Interpretation of the Act can be unpredictable.  For example: -

In Mirvahedy v Henley 2003the House of Lords held that an owner was liable when a horse escaped and collided with a car causing serious injury.  Contrast this with McKenny v Foster 2008where the Court of Appeal found that there was no liability when a cow leapt over a 6-bar gate and collided with a car killing the driver.  The difference between the two cases turned on interpretation of the Act and whether or not the animal was acting “out of character”.

For damage caused by an animal (not belonging to a dangerous species), a farmer would be liable if:

  • The damage is of a kind which the animal, unless restrained, was likely to cause; or
  • The damage was due to characteristics which are not normally found in animals of that species or which are not normally found except at particular times or in particular circumstances;
  • The characteristics of the animal were known to the keeper.

Whilst there have been calls for the Act to be reformed, until this happens livestock keepers should ensure that they fully insure against such claims.

In a case in 2011, a car collided with a Charolais steer on a dual carriageway.  The cow was killed and the driver suffered significant injuries.  In bringing a case against the farmer the Court dismissed a negligence claim but found against the farmer under the Act. The facts proved that the steer had jumped a 6ft fence, that the fencing had been entirely appropriate and that the steer forced its way through a number of hedges and fences before it reached the road.  The expert commented that the steer must have been startled or spooked causing it to leap the fence and escape.  There was no evidence that the steer’s behaviour before the accident influenced the accident.  The Court concluded: -

Charolais could be “flighty” meaning they would rapidly respond to unexpected events and take evasive action.  This included reactions to strange places, loud noises or sudden darkness.

Once the steer had jumped the fence it would have been very frightened, alone in a strange environment and would have continued through the fences and hedges into unknown territory and onto the road.  The problem was exacerbated by the lights of cars on the road.  The steer’s actions were therefore caused by particular characteristics, namely that cattle of a Charolais type have a propensity to act in a wholly unpredictable manner when subject to adverse stimuli.

Despite the steer being termed “unpredictable” and the farmer’s care being described as impeccable the Court found against the farmer. Following the structure of the 1971 Act, as the farmer knew of the relevant characteristics this satisfied the strict liability test under the Act.

There must be a causal link between the animals’ characteristics and the damage caused. The case of Jaundrill v Gillett 1996was where a car collided with horses which had been let out by malicious intruders. The Court of Appeal held that the real cause of that accident was the release of the horses rather than their galloping and panicking and therefore there was no liability under the 1971 Act.

This all serves as a useful reminder that any livestock keeper should ensure that they have adequate insurance against negligence under the 1971 Act.

For further information please speak to Frank Smith on 01242 801748, or

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