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Horse Owner Not Liable for Tragic Road Accident Caused by Loose Mare

The concepts of blame and responsibility obviously cannot be applied to animals and it is their owners who are most at risk of legal liability if they cause injury to humans. A case concerning a loose horse that triggered a catastrophic road collision, however, showed that establishing such liability can be a highly demanding task.

An 18-year-old girl was a passenger in a taxi when it struck the mare on a trunk road in the early hours of the morning. The horse died instantly and her body penetrated the taxi's roof. Much of her weight fell onto the teenager, who suffered multiple very severe injuries, including traumatic brain damage. Proceedings were launched on her behalf under the Animals Act 1971 against the mare's owner.

The Act renders keepers of animals strictly liable for any injury or damage they cause. There is thus no requirement to prove fault on a keeper's part in order to establish liability. However, where an animal does not belong to an innately dangerous species, liability will not be established unless a number of criteria relating to the characteristics of the particular animal and the likelihood, foreseeability and severity of the harm caused are fulfilled.

Ruling on the matter, the High Court found that the mare probably wandered out of her grazing field after a run of inadequately installed fencing fell over. She was not frightened or panicked when she left the field and it was more likely than not that she was stationary immediately before the impact. The tired horse was exploring her environment calmly until the taxi was three to five metres away.

It could not be said that the likelihood of injury to the teenager, or of its being severe, was due to characteristics of the mare which are not normally found in horses except at particular times or in particular circumstances. The accident occurred because a large and heavy animal was standing on a dual carriageway where she should not have been. The Court expressed sympathy for the teenager but ruled that its findings on the evidence were fatal to her claim against the owner.