Horses in Connecticut No Longer Have a “Vicious Propensity”

In April 2014, the Connecticut Supreme Court in Venderella v. Astrib Family Limited Partnership made the equestrian industry very nervous when it held that equines had a “vicious propensity” to bite. In this case, the defendant was a landowner who operated a business on the property called Glendale Farms, which sold vegetables and plants to the public. A horse boarding facility also operated on the premises. The plaintiff was a two year old boy who went to Glendale Farms with his family to purchase plants. While on the property, the plaintiff’s father and the plaintiff went to the paddock and started petting a horse, Scuppy. Without warning, Scuppy then lowered his head and bit the boy on the cheek, ultimately leaving a scar. Having been bitten by a horse myself, I can imagine how serious the bite was for this little boy.

The defendant landowners tried to argue that they had no warning that Scuppy would bite because he had not bitten before. Since Scuppy was a horse, a domestic animal, they should not be responsible for a bite that occurred without warning.

Essentially, the court sided with the plaintiff and decided that all horses were dangerous because they had a “naturally vicious propensity” to bite. Therefore, it did not matter that Scuppy had not bitten before, and the defendants were liable for the plaintiff’s injuries because horses belong to a dangerous class of animals.

This decision made a lot of equestrians and their lawyers nervous because horse owners would have to assume all their horses had a “natural vicious propensity” and take measures to prevent injuries or expose themselves to liability.

The Connecticut legislature heard the rallying calls from equestrians and quickly passed a bill which effectively overruled the Court’s holding in Astrib Family. Entitled Public Act 14-54, which was passed on May 28, 2014, states that an equine shall not be deemed to have a “naturally mischievous or vicious propensity” and that where there is a suit against an equine owner for personal injuries, there is a presumption the equine “did not have a propensity to engage in behavior that would foreseeably cause injury to humans.”

What does this mean for horse owners in Connecticut? Not every horse owner has to take special precautions to avoid being sued, only those who own horses with a history of injury-causing behaviors. Even though Astrib Family dealt with a horse bite, a “vicious propensity” could also extend to other behaviors, such as striking, kicking, bucking, or rearing. If you have a horse with any of these behaviors, you must take precautions that will limit the possibility of injuries to everyone, including non-equestrians and children. For example, you can not assume that if you have a horse that kicks, you can minimize your liability exposure by placing a red ribbon in your horse’s tail, because the general public does not necessarily know the meaning behind the ribbon and you could still be responsible in the event your horse injures someone. If you have property that is open to the public or you own a horse with a history of dangerous behaviors, including biting, you should talk to an attorney regarding how to limit your exposure and have a discussion with your insurance agent to ensure you have sufficient liability coverage.

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