The Animals Act is a piece of law which is over 40 years old but is causing as much confusion now as it ever did. Badly drafted and poorly understood the last four decades have seen numerous different interpretations on what it really means in terms of the responsibility the owner of an animal has for injury caused by that animal. Currently the majority view is that if you can prove the Animal Act applies then there is “strict liability” on the part of the animal’s owner. Strict liability means there is no defence. The latest case to offer an explanation is that of Goldsmith v Patchchott  EWCA Civ 183. The case involved a horse called “Red” who reared and bucked violently throwing Mrs Goldsmith to the floor and striking her face with its hoof causing nasty injuries. Mrs Goldsmith brought a personal injury claim against Red's owner. If an animal is not a dangerous species then under the Animals Act you must be able to show that: (a) The damage the animal caused is likely to be severe unless the animal is restrained. (b) The likelihood of damages is caused by characteristics of the animal not normally found in animals of the same species or not normally found except at particular times or in particular circumstances and (c) Those characteristics were known to the owner at the time. There is a defence under s. 5(2) of the Act if the Claimant voluntarily accepted the risk. Mrs Goldsmith was an experienced rider and had been warned that the horse was “on his toes”. She had ridden the horse three times under supervision and the day of the accident was the first time she’d ridden him alone. The judge in this case found that Red’s owners were strictly liable. The damage was likely to be severe and the owner knew that Red would buck and kick. Red’s owner tried to escape liability under (b) by arguing that horses do not only buck when startled or alarmed but they failed to provide any evidence that bucking was a normal characteristic in any circumstance. However the claim failed as Mrs Goldsmith was held to have voluntarily accepted the risk of the horse rearing and bucking. Mrs Goldsmith disagreed saying that she had not accepted that the horse would buck as violently or as aggressively as it did but the Court of Appeal felt that knowledge that there was some risk was enough. How violent a spooked horse's movements are, were entirely a matter of chance and the fact Red bucked more violently than Mrs Goldsmith anticipated, could not defeat the s5(2) defence The case raises important points for all Animals Act cases not just those involved horses. It shows the importance of expert evidence in being able to show whether or not characteristics displayed by a dog at the time of an attack are as expected. It also shows that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. If a dog bite victim has been warned that a dog is prone to “snap” but takes the risk and ends up getting bitten this case seems to give dog owners an argument that the victim accepted the risk and as such there would be no claim. The message is simple, if you are warned then stay away.
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