'Reining in' Mirvahedy v Henley - strict liability under the Animals Act 1971
Ford v Seymour-Williams [08.12.21]
On 8 December 2021, the Court of Appeal handed down its decision in the Animals Act 1971 case of Ford v Seymour-Williams. The court provided clarity on the requirements relating to strict liability for non-dangerous animals under section 2(2), provided guidance on the requirement for the injury to have been caused by a characteristic of the animal, and the requirement for knowledge of those circumstances.
First instance decision
The claimant was an employee of the defendant and at the time of the accident was hunting whilst riding a horse which was kept at the defendant’s premises. The horse reared and fell onto the claimant who sustained severe injuries. The horse died a few minutes later.
The experts were unable to determine the exact cause of the horse’s death. The two main possibilities were either:
- 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 skull when falling to the ground.
The main area of contention was whether this accident could be caught by section 2(2)(b) of the Animals Act 1971 (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 claim was ultimately dismissed by the High Court, who found in favour of the defendant. The court found that the rearing was as a result of a cardiovascular event rather than misbehaviour and that the fact a horse may rear in response to such an internal event was not something which the keeper would have foreseen. This meant that the strict liability provisions of S2(2) did not apply as the particular circumstance which caused the horse to rear within S2(2)(b) was not known by the keeper, hence there was not the requisite S2(2)(c) knowledge. All three limbs of S2(2) were not therefore satisfied so strict liability did not apply.
Court of Appeal’s decision
The only real question for the appeal was whether it was correct for the trial judge to find that the cause of the horse’s rear was relevant. It was established by previous case law that rearing or bucking is likely to cause damage and therefore, should be considered a “characteristic” for the purposes of the Act.
The appellant’s approach was to argue that there was no need to prove a cause of the characteristic; the cause of the rear was irrelevant and it was enough to simply know that horses can rear.
The respondent, represented by Kennedys, maintained that this approach must be flawed as it would ultimately deprive S2(2)(c) of the Act of any real meaning. The ‘knowledge factor’ would be eliminated. Further, this line of argument would effectively put the approach for animals of a non-dangerous species (horses, dogs etc.) in line with cases involving animals of a dangerous species dealt with by S2(1) (lions, tigers etc.), which was not the intention of the legislator. The respondent maintained that it was necessary for the claimant to prove both a cause of the characteristic behaviour and the keeper’s knowledge of such cause.
The Court of Appeal agreed, unanimously dismissing the appeal. The court acknowledged that in previous cases the courts had 1) identified the relevant characteristic (in this case rearing); 2) identified the particular time or circumstance which caused this; 3) established that the reaction caused severe damage, and 4) that the keeper knew that the trigger event could lead to the reaction which occurred.
The court found that the trial judge was correct in rejecting the appellant’s argument that the reason for the horse’s rearing was irrelevant. Rather, it was necessary to show the particular circumstance that gave rise to the characteristic of rearing and also the keeper’s knowledge of this.
Interestingly, this case shows it is possible for a keeper to have knowledge of a normal characteristic – such as rearing – which can be as a result of one particular time or circumstance – disobedience – but not another – a cardiovascular incident.
This is a welcomed result for defendants and insurers. Whilst each case will turn on the specific facts, this judgment emphasises that the Act does not result in automatic strict liability in all S2(2) cases and as such, should discourage ill-founded claims being pursued.
In future cases, it is now clear that claimants must show both the occurrence of the characteristic behaviour, the particular circumstances in which that characteristic behaviour occurred, and finally also that the keeper had knowledge of this trigger event.