Damage by animals is not common, despite the lurid headlines one sees in the popular press. However, if your animal does cause damage or injury to someone else, what is the extent of your liability?
As well as a remedy in tort (the general law of damages), there is specific law relating to this in the form of the Animals Act 1971. This stipulates that if the animal concerned is not a domesticated animal, you will be liable for any damage or injury it causes – so make sure your pet bear doesn’t escape!
However, if harm is caused by a domesticated animal, the situation is more complex.
There are three tests that determine the liability of the owner of the animal under the Act:
- Is the damage of a kind that is likely to occur if the animal is left unrestrained or is likely to be severe if the animal is unrestrained?
- Is the damage caused by the animal due to a characteristic of the animal that is not normally found in the species (which is interpreted in case law as applying to breeds, rather than species as such) or that is exhibited at certain times or in particular circumstances?
- Does the animal’s keeper have knowledge of the characteristic of the animal which is at the root of the damage?
The main problem for animal owners is that the phrase ‘likely to occur’ in this context is taken to mean ‘foreseeable’, which is a less stringent test.
The chief problem in assessing liability, however, turns on the imposition of liability when the animal exhibits characteristics that are not normally found or that are found in particular circumstances or at particular times.
If the characteristic of the animal did not cause the damage, then strict liability is avoided. However, if it did, the next step is to show that the owner of the animal was aware of the characteristic. In practice, this has been interpreted as having knowledge of the characteristics of the breed.