How many times have we heard that after a dog bites someone, or a horse throws someone off and they suffer injury? Ford v Seymour Williams

On 8 December 2021 the Court of Appeal handed down judgment in the appeal case of Ford v Seymour Williams, in which Ms Georgina Crawford, from Ropewalk Chambers in Nottingham, a barrister’s chambers used by us at Ringrose Law, represented the successful Defendant in the first hearing.   She appeared again at the appeal, but this time was junior to Mr William Norris QC of 39 Essex Chambers in London.

Again, the Defendant  and Ms Crawford were successful in the appeal.

The case arose out of a hunting accident on 15 September 2018. Ms Ford, the “Claimant” in the original case, was injured when the horse ‘Tommy’ that she was riding reared and fell on top of her. Tommy died within minutes. The Court decided that he had suffered a heart attack and that was the reason he reared. This finding  goes to the heart of the claim and could inform the way claims such as these, brought under the Animals Act 1971 are dealt with.

The Animals Act is one of the most difficult Acts to understand and to interpret, not helped by the fact that it is not drafted very clearly. It relates to claims made where people are injured by animals, usually dogs or horses, though cows have their place, due to them acting in a certain way, either because that species of animal generally is known to act in that way in certain circumstances or that the specific animal was known to act that way.  The owner or “keeper”-someone who is in charge of or has control of the animal at the time of the relevant behaviour-can be liable if they knew about that behaviour, either in the species in general or that individual animal.

This is important, because if the owner or keeper didn’t, or couldn’t know about either, this offers a defence.

Similarly, it is important to know whether an injured person was injured in the course of their employment or not. If they were, then it can be a defence to say that as an employee, they had voluntarily accepted the risk of the animal behaving in that way. BUT-this voluntary acceptance cannot just be presumed. It has to be explained to the employee in a way that they understand the risk and voluntarily accept it. It cannot be forced on them.

The Animals Act is unusual in that liability for the injuries can fall on the owner or keeper without the Claimant having to establish negligence on their part, as is more usual.  This is called “strict liability” and it is enough that the animal is found to have behaved in a certain way; that the owner and/or keeper knew it or the species could do that in certain circumstances or at all and that the injured person hadn’t voluntarily accepted the risk

The appeal was brought on the basis that Ms Ford’s  employer, the Respondent Mr Seymour-Williams, was the keeper of the horse and therefore was strictly liable under the provisions of s. 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971.

There were a number of issues in the case when it was first heard including;

  • Whether the Claimant was acting in the course of her employment by the Defendant and thus could be argued to have accepted the risk of Tommy rearing
  • What was the cause of Tommy rearing? There were two choices put forward by the veterinary experts. Firstly, that he reared through disobedience and secondly, that he suffered a “cardiovascular event”, otherwise known a s a heart attack.
  • Tommy’s behavioural history so far as it might have been relevant to rearing due to disobedience
  • What the Claimant and Defendant knew of that history. Did either or both know of a likelihood of disobedience or that he had a heart problem? The Claimant said that Tommy was known to rear out of disobedience and he thrown her off before.
  • If it was found that he reared because of a heart attack, could either the Claimant or Defendant have known or foreseen that he could rear as the attack happened and he subsequently died?

The answers to these questions would determine how the law was to be applied.

It was found:

  • The Claimant was acting in the course of employment.
  • The rearing was the result of a heart attack
  • That being so, it didn’t matter that he was known to rear before, because this was for a different reason

But it was also found that although the veterinary experts agreed that a horse might rear as a response to a heart attack (or possibly a similar catastrophic event) that was not something which the owner/keeper or the Claimant, as ordinary ‘horsemen’ would have known about or foreseen.

Therefore, the owner/keeper did not have the required knowledge under the Act that horses/Tommy could react in that way and so was not liable under the Animals Act.

The Claimant appealed. On appeal, she was now known as the Appellant and the Defendant the Respondent.  It was a complicated argument and it is worthwhile reading the whole of Georgina Crawford’s article on it here: https://www.ropewalk.co.uk/knowledge-sharing/news/1815/after-nearly-two-decades-the-tidal-wave-of-mirvahedy-finally-turns

On appeal, the Appellant (Claimant) argued that the Deputy Judge at the first hearing was wrong to find that she failed to satisfy 2(2)(b) of the Act. It was argued that rearing was a ‘conditional characteristic’, only ever displayed when there was a particular trigger, and once that had been established, there was no need to investigate the wider background to the episode of rearing.

She said that the Defendant knew that horses can rear for any reason, and that consequently, knowledge was established. It didn’t matter what the trigger was precisely.

The Respondent (Defendant) argued that the cause of the rearing WAS relevant.  Knowing the reason behind any behaviour for the purpose of the Animals Act 1971 could mean the difference in being liable for injury due to that behaviour or not due to the “knowledge” defence.

The Court of Appeal sided with the Respondent (the original Defendant in the first hearing).

In previous similar cases, the Court had always identified the “characteristic behaviour”, but also identified when it would manifest itself.  Logically this seems correct, as if an owner or keeper of an animal knows when it is likely to show certain behaviour, then he or she can take steps not to put the animal in that situation and thus avoid the behaviour.  If they can’t identify when it will happen, then they could potentially argue they have a defence as they don’t know of it and can’t foresee it.

So-what does this mean?  A Claimant must not only show that the characteristic did in fact occur-i.e. a dog DID bite, but must also be able to show that the circumstances in which the characteristic manifests itself existed as well.

It seems that that Claimants must now demonstrate not just the occurrence of the characteristic behaviour no matter what the animal is, but they must be able to demonstrate both the particular circumstances in which the characteristic behaviour arose, and that the owner/ keeper had knowledge of that.

The full judgment of the appeal is here:  https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2021/1848.html

Animals Act cases have always been difficult and specialist advice is essential for success in either bringing or defending a claim.

What we would say is that if you are involved in a claim involving an animal, such as being bitten by a dog, which is one of the more common claims, be sure to get down the EXACT circumstances of the incident as soon as possible.

  • Where and when did it happen? Was the animal loose in a field; in a park; on a lead, in a house, in a riding lesson, being groomed; were there other similar animals around or any other animals; did it have puppies or a foal?  Photos can help if not dangerous or illegal to take them.
  • What was the weather like? Some animals can get upset by weather conditions and act out of character OR it could be known that some DO act in a certain way in particular weather.
  • What type of animal was it; not just “a dog”, but breed, size, sex, age, description etc. Again, photos can help.
  • Did you know the animal? Do you know of previous similar incidents with it?
  • Do you know who the owner/keeper is and where they live? Do you know if they are insured?
  • Who was with the animal? Young; older; owner; keeper; dog-walker; instructor etc.
  • Was there anything that could be seen as provocation by you or anyone else-going up to a strange dog and immediately stroking it, for instance; the animal being suddenly frightened?
  • Were there any warnings; verbal or written; signs etc?
  • Who gave the warnings?
  • Take photos of the injuries early on.

These questions are not exhaustive, but the more information you have the better.  It will enable your solicitor to assess the prospects of a successful claim early on and advise accordingly.

You can speak to our legal team on 01522 561020 or email wecanhelp@ringroselaw.co.uk for a free initial discussion if you think you might have a claim.

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