Injury Inflicted by Animals

Terms:

Domestic Animals:
Household pets and farm animals.

Dangerous Propensity:
The predisposition of an animal to inflict harm.

Abnormal Dangerous Propensity:
A predisposition which is not typical for a particular type of animal.

One Free Bite Rule:
A doctrine which insulates a dog owner for strict liability in the event that his dog has bitten someone but has never bitten anyone before.

Whether strict liability is applied in cases involving harm caused by animals depends on whether the harm was inflicted by a domestic animal or a wild animal, and whether or not the injury was the result of the animal’s natural dangerous propensities or an abnormal dangerous propensity. Domestic animals include household pets and livestock (livestock is loosely defined to include typical farm animals.)

Where livestock trespasses on the plaintiff’s land the defendant owner of the livestock will be strictly liable for both the trespass and for any damage caused by his livestock.

The application of strict liability regarding domestic animals hinges on four factors:

(1) The harm inflicted by the animal needs to be the result of a dangerous propensity. See Greeley v. Jameson, 164 N.E. 385 (Mass. 1929).

(2) That dangerous propensity needs to be abnormal for the animal (if the dangerous propensity is typical for that type of animal, the owner is not strictly liable).

(3) The owner must be aware of the animal’s abnormal dangerous propensity.

(4) The harm must arise from the known dangerous propensity.

Here's an example:

(1) Sigfried is bitten by Roy’s house cat. If Roy knew that his cat had a tendency to bite strangers and biting is not typical behavior for house cats, Roy will be strictly liable for the harm that Sigfried suffers. Again, in order for strict liability to apply, the dangerous propensity must be known to the owner, must be abnormal for the animal, and the harm must arise from that known dangerous propensity. Thus, if Sigfried is injured because he tripped over Roy’s cat, strict liability will not apply because Sigfried’s injuries did not arise from the known dangerous propensity.

(2) Sigfried is injured by getting kicked by Roy’s horse. Roy may not be strictly liable because kicking may be a normal dangerous propensity for a horse. Please note however, that Roy could be liable for ordinary negligence if he did not use an appropriate level of care in keeping the animal.

Where the plaintiff is bitten by a dog which has never displayed dangerous propensities, the defendant is not strictly liable for the injuries. This is called the “one free bite” rule. See Jividen v. Law, 461 S.E.2d 451 (W. Va. 1995). However, several states have passed statutes eliminating the “one free bite” rule and imposed strict liability, even though that dog had never displayed any dangerous tendencies.

Where the plaintiff is injured by the defendant’s wild animals, the defendant is strictly liable even for harm caused by the animals’ normal dangerous propensities. Further, it is not necessary that the defendant know about the dangerous propensities before the plaintiff is injured. Thus, the defendant will be strictly liable for any harm caused by wild animals regardless of whether the harm is caused from normal or abnormal dangerous propensities and regardless of whether the defendant knew of those dangerous propensities before the injury.. See Cowden v. Bear Country, Inc., 382 F.Supp. 1321 (D.S.D. 1974). For example:

Roy owns two rare white Bengal tigers which he lets roam freely on his property. White Bengal tigers are naturally aggressive and commonly attack humans. Roy is not aware that the tigers have these natural aggressive propensities. One day, Sigfried, Roy’s best friend, stops by to say hello. As Sigfried is walking across Roy’s property, one of the tigers attacks him. Sigfried is mauled by the tiger and severely injured. Here, even though the attack was a manifestation of the tiger’s normal dangerous propensities and even though Roy was unaware of this normal dangerous propensity, Roy will be liable to Sigfried because the tiger was a wild animal and a defendant is strictly liable for any harm caused by wild animals even if the harm is caused from the animal’s normal dangerous propensities and even if the defendant did not know of those dangerous propensities before the injury.

However, strict liability will not apply where wild animals are kept under a public duty. Thus, people like zoo keepers are not strictly liable for injuries inflicted by animals under their care. Plaintiffs in such cases would have to prove ordinary negligence.

Where the plaintiff is injured on the defendant’s property, strict liability will hinge on the status of the plaintiff on the defendant’s land. Where the plaintiff is an invitee or a licensee, strict liability will apply. However, if the plaintiff is an unknown trespasser he is not entitled to any recovery for his injuries even under ordinary negligence. One exception to this is in situations involving watch dogs. The defendant may be liable to an unknown trespasser for injuries caused by a watch dog unless adequate warning is posted. This is because a watch dog is "trained to harm". This rule is similar to that regarding the use of mechanical devices to protect property.

If however, the defendant knew of the trespasser’s presence, the trespasser may be able to recover under ordinary negligence but not under strict liability.

Where the defendant had reason to anticipate the presence of trespassers on his property (especially where the trespassers are foreseeable child trespassers), strict liability will attach unless adequate warnings of the wild animals’ presence were given.

Click here to go to the Land Occupiers lesson for a review of the various levels of duty to persons entering onto the defendant's property.

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