Equestrian and other domestic animal claims – a glimmer of hope to 'rein' in the Animals Act 1971

Ford v Seymour-Williams [19.02.21]

Ford v Seymour-Williams [19.02.21] saw a success for the defendant in the High Court in a case centred on the Animals Act 1971 (the Act).

The claim arose from a hunting accident in September 2018. The claimant, an experienced horsewoman who has been riding since she was seven years old, was an employee of the defendant and was riding a horse which was kept at the defendant’s premises. During a cubbing meet, the horse began showing a reluctance to move forwards and although the horse momentarily recovered, it suddenly reared and fell backwards onto the claimant. As a result, the claimant sustained severe injuries and the horse died about five or six minutes later.

The claimant brought a claim against her former employer, pursuing damages for her injuries and consequential losses under the strict liability rule in Section 2 (2) of the Act.

The experts whose evidence was relied upon, were unable to determine the exact cause of the horse’s death, instead agreeing that the cause will never be known. The two possibilities were:

  • A cardiovascular catastrophe leading to the horse napping and rearing due to a ‘feeling’ that something was wrong; or
  • The horse misbehaving and unexpectedly rearing and possibly sustaining a whiplash-type fracture to the base of its scull when falling to the ground.

The main area of contention was whether this accident could be caught by Section 2(2)(b) of the Act which states: “the likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to characteristics of the animal which are not normally found in animals of the same species or are not normally so found except at particular times or in particular circumstances.”

The claimant’s argument was that it does not matter whether the horse reared as a result of a “cardiovascular event or simply out of disobedience”. Rather, the defendant had knowledge that horses can rear in either of those circumstances and that is sufficient to satisfy the terms of Section 2(2) which imposes strict liability for damage caused by animals which do not themselves belong to a dangerous species. Furthermore, the defendant could not rely upon the statutory defence of voluntary acceptance of risk as the claimant was an employee of the defendant on the day of the unfortunate accident.

The defendant’s counter-argument was that the scope of the Act should not be further broadened which would be the inevitable outcome if the claimant succeeded on the basis of mere possibilities. It was the defendant’s case that the most likely cause of the horse’s death was a cardiovascular catastrophe which cannot amount to characteristic behaviour, as required by the Act. Support from previous case law was raised to support the defence which outlined that both described and repeatable behaviour is necessary.

Further, supporting the argument that the strict liability criteria of Section 2(2) of the Act had not been satisfied, the defendant’s counsel advanced that the third limb of Section 2(2) of the Act, the ‘knowledge test’, had not been met. Indeed, where the veterinary experts were unfamiliar with a horse rearing in the midst of a cardiovascular catastrophe, then the defendant could not be attributed with knowledge. Counsel for the claimant disagreed, submitting that the defendant has a broad knowledge that horses can rear for any reason.

Having heard the arguments advanced by the parties, Michael Kent QC sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge, favoured the submissions on behalf of the defendant on the construction of the Act. The claim was ultimately dismissed.

The success for the defendant handled by Hazel Leeson, Senior Associate, has attracted media attention across the UK. This will be a very welcomed judgment across the equine and rural insurance industry and could play a pivotal role in future claims where the accident circumstances are unclear and injury unfortunately results.

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