Animal owners owe a responsibility, not just to the animal but to society in general, to keep the animal safely secured so they are not a hazard to themselves or others. The degree to which this is necessary will depend on the specific breed, size, and temperament of the animal.
In many cases, North Carolina law does not always require those injured by improperly secured animals to prove the owner had any knowledge of the creature’s previous viciousness or propensity to cause harm. In some instances, a strict liability standard may be applied. That means owners are strictly liable for the damage or injuries their pets or livestock cause. In other cases (such as dog bites or dog-related injuries, per N.C.G.S. Chapter 67), actual negligence may need to be shown by proving the owner had knowledge their dog was a “dangerous dog.”
Recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals weighed whether the owner of a horse should have to face a trial in a civil lawsuit filed by a woman who was seriously injured when the defendant’s horse wandered into the road in front of the car in which the plaintiff was a front-seat passenger. The impact killed the horse and caused serious injuries to the plaintiff. The issue in Peoples v. Tuck was whether the defendant could be liable for a failure to exercise reasonable care in hitching his horse in front of his sister’s home and leaving the horse unattended in a non-fenced area.
Although the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the appellate court reversed, finding the plaintiff had raised a triable issue of fact as to the defendant’s reported negligence, which could result in a trial outcome favorable to the plaintiff.
According to court records, the defendant rode his horse from his parents’ home to his sister’s house in Vance County (about 1.5 hours east of Greensboro). He made this trip twice weekly and, as he did each time, hitched the horse to a four-by-four post that normally served as a clothesline. It was affixed with a t-shape at the top. The defendant was satisfied the post was sturdy, and the horse was secure. He went inside and talked to his sister for about 10 minutes and then heard a commotion. He went outside and saw a gathering of people.
He found his horse in the road, blood-covered with a broken neck and four broken legs. The plaintiff’s son, who was driving, struck the horse with his vehicle. The plaintiff was in the front seat. The horse landed on the roof of the vehicle, and the weight of its body crushed the roof in toward the plaintiff, who suffered a concussion and spinal cord injuries. The defendant reportedly became irate with the plaintiff’s son and assaulted him. First responders transported the plaintiff to a nearby hospital.
The plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging he failed to properly restrain the horse under the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” This is another way of saying strict liability, or the theory that the very nature of the accident or injury implies negligence, even when there is no direct evidence for how the defendant actually behaved.
The defendant contended res ipsa loquitur was not applicable, and no genuine material issue of fact existed because the plaintiff failed to present evidence that the defendant failed to restrain or secure the horse or that he breached any duty of care owed to them. He presented a deposition by a local animal control officer who testified he’d seen horses securely tied to less than what the defendant used.
However, the plaintiff presented evidence from a veterinarian who testified the defendant failed to properly restrain the horse, and as a result, it was able to break away and get into the roadway, causing the collision.
The defendant cited the 1940 case of Gardner v. Black in arguing one must use the ordinary care and foresight of a prudent person to keep the animal in restraint, and therefore he wasn’t strictly liable. Furthermore, he noted the veterinarian’s testimony was silent on the extent or nature of the horse’s breed, training, or anything specific to the facts of this case. There was also no evidence that the horse had previously escaped or that the defendant had any knowledge of the horse’s ability or propensity to break away from such a post.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the defense, but the appeals court reversed. Although the justices agreed that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply in this case, they found the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence of the defendant’s alleged negligence resulting in an animal attack to survive summary judgment, meaning the case should be allowed to proceed to trial.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Peoples v. Tuck , Oct. 18, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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Sisters Seek Damages in Fatal Crash When Airbags Didn’t Deploy, Oct. 3, 2016, Greensboro Personal Injury Lawyer Blog