A recent poll (of 13 people in this office) revealed not only that tadpoles were the most popular pet but that of the 84.6% of us who had pets only 36% had insurance. If this is representative of the rest of the country it would mean that the majority of us are not just in danger of expensive vet’s bills but possibly expensive legal bills as well. This is because the House of Lords has decided that if an animal injures someone the owner could be held liable even if they have done everything a responsible owner could do.
The case, Mirvahedy v Henley, arises out a serious road accident on the A380 in Devon. Mr Mirvahedy was driving home when his car was hit by a horse owned by Mr and Mrs Henley which had bolted for unknown reasons from their field.
Mirvahedy v Henley caused the House of Lords to clarify 30 years of uncertainty in claims involving injuries caused by ordinary domesticated animals. Previously this area of law had been confused by a poorly drafted piece of legislation called the Animals Act 1971, which along with ordinary principles of negligence, regulates such cases.
Because of the unclear wording of the Animals Act some judges were ruling that owners were only liable for injuries caused by an animal acting completely abnormally for its species. Others interpreted the Act as meaning that provided the animal acted in a way that was not generally normal for the species, even if it was normal in the particular circumstances (e.g. a horse bolting, or a dog biting ), the owner would be liable. This was the problem that faced the House of Lords in Mirvahedy. It preferred the second interpretation. The Henleys were held not to have been negligent because they had taken all reasonable steps to fence their horses securely. However, the House of Lords found them “strictly liable” (i.e. liable without being at “fault”) for the injuries under the Animals Act. As a result the Henleys had to pay compensation and legal costs, amounting to thousands of pounds.
There remained some uncertainty regarding the proper interpretation of the Animals Act following the Mirvahedy judgment until last month when Slee Blackwell acted for an elderly lady injured when a boisterous dog ran into her, breaking her leg. The judge gave further clarification of the law by specifically finding that although the owner was not to blame for the way in which she had been dealing with the dog she was nevertheless strictly liable under the principles laid down in Mirvahedy.
The decision is therefore being applied by the Courts and is continuing to shape similar cases. There is still plenty of scope for legal argument but sensible and responsible owners seem likely to be held liable even if they have done their very best to prevent an accident.