Horse Owners Say Case Could Have Far-Reaching Impact
If one horse bites a person, does that make all equines dangerous?
The biting horse in question, a gelding named Scuppy, did not appear before the Connecticut Supreme Court last week. But his name could go down in history as the horse that created a new legal standard in the state for domesticated animal liability cases.
Scuppy was a regular along the roadside fence at Timothy Astriab's Glendale Farm in Milford. According to court records, in 2006, a small boy named Anthony Vendrella Jr. was bitten on the cheek when he tried to pat Scuppy through a fence.
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.
The plaintiffs said that no such notice was needed, that livestock such as horses can be inherently dangerous, regardless of the temperament of the individual annual.
The defense took issue with that argument, saying each horse needed to be judged on its own merits. In this case, the defendants 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, Astriab argued, he was 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 Connecticut 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. In its decision, the Appellate Court ruled that horses are a class of domestic animal that have "a propensity to bite and be vicious."
Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Vendrella v. Astriab Limited Partnership. If the justices let the Appellate Court ruling stand, the Vendrella family will be able to pursue their lawsuit at the Superior Court level. "It should be a question for a jury," the Vendrella's lawyer, Hugh D. Hughes, told the Supreme Court.
The hearing captured the attention of horse lovers from across the state and beyond. An amicus brief was filed in support of the farm by the Connecticut Farm Bureau and the Connecticut Horse Council Inc., which represent the owners of more than 51,000 horses in the state.
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.
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."
To the relief of Goodusky and horse lovers statewide, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers indicated that the final decision would not likely be a referendum on the entire species. "There is not going to be some general rule about horses that will come out of this," she said.•