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Parsing the Supreme Court’s ‘Vicious’ Horse Ruling

by Hugh McQuaid | Mar 28, 2014 5:30am
(6) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Agriculture, Courts

Arnold Gold -- New Haven Register

Shannon Pleines is photographed with a fourteen-year-old miniature pony, Sparkles (left), and Cash (right), a six-year-old paint horse at Shannon Equine in Woodbridge on 11/14/2013.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy renewed his push for legislation Wednesday to protect horse owners from additional liability following a Supreme Court decision regarding “Scuppy,” a horse that bit a child in 2006.

Malloy proposed the legislation last month in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a lawsuit stemming from the 2006 incident, during which the horse bit a toddler at a farm in Milford.

Horse owners fear that the lawsuit and resulting precedent could impact how horses are perceived by insurance companies. In 2012, a state Appellate Court ruling in the case concluded that horses were vicious, inclined to mischief, and possess a natural propensity to bite.

Through a summary of an opinion published Wednesday, the Supreme Court indicated it was ruling in favor of the young boy who was bitten, and decided that horse owners have a responsibility to prevent injuries that are foreseeable.

According to the summary, a majority of justices were not ruling that horses have dangerous propensities, but that the question should be decided case by case. The justices sent the case back to a lower court for more consideration. 

In a statement, Malloy said the lingering questions were a good reason for lawmakers to act on his bill, which specifies generally that horses are not vicious. The bill also applies to domesticated ponies, donkeys, and mules.

The governor’s concern with the propensities of horses is largely economic. If horses become legally classified as dangerous animals, many fear they will be very expensive for horse owners and businesses to insure. There are an estimated 51,671 horses in Connecticut.

“While we are still reviewing the opinion released today by the Supreme Court, at first glance, it appears that our legislation is now all the more timely. Connecticut’s agriculture sector contributes $3.5 billion to our economy and accounts for about 28,000 jobs in our state,” Malloy said. “Protecting owners and handlers of domesticated horses is important to supporting this portion of our economy.”

The governor’s bill has been approved by the legislature’s Environment Committee and is awaiting action in the House. Lawmakers on the committee unanimously approved the legislation.

However, some say the bill is unnecessary.

When the legislation received a public hearing in February, Hugh D. Hughes, a lawyer representing the family of the bitten toddler, said concerns about the impact of the Appellate Court ruling have been overblown and badly distorted by a brief filed on the case by the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association and the Connecticut Horse Council.

Hughes said the appellate decision was not commenting on the nature of all horses, but ruling on procedural and evidentiary standards.

“The term ‘vicious’ is nothing more than an archaic term of art that means likely to cause injury under the circumstances. The factual determination is always case by case,” he wrote.

Hughes suggested Malloy’s bill was a legislative fix for a problem that does not exist outside the court document filed by the horse council and farm bureau, known as an amicus brief.

“The amicus’s distortions of the Appellate Court opinion have led to efforts to fix a problem that is a figment of the amicus’s imagination. This has unfortunately found its way into the bill before the committee,” he wrote.

State Rep. Diana Urban, a North Stonington Democrat and horse owner, said she sees a need for the legislature to pass the governor’s bill. She said there is a lot at stake in Connecticut based on the size of its horse industry.

“I like the governor continuing this line because I think it sends a really good message,” she said. “What happens if they take this ruling, which I don’t think is that Draconian a ruling, and they decide this means horses are vicious and the insurance companies get in the middle of it and make it almost impossible to have a horse. That’s why I think it’s really good that he’s continuing down the avenue he’s on.”

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(6) Comments

posted by: Historian | March 28, 2014  8:37am

Urban and her ilk need to focus on real issues not animals that people have been dealing with successfully for hundreds of years. A child got hurt unnecessarily and a lawsuit was filed. That is the system and it works until the crazies pile in demanding protection from liability they do not deserve. Horses, dogs, cats, etc are all capable of inuring humans and their owners hold reponsibity to protect everyone else….

posted by: Arnold L. Goldman DVM, MPH | March 28, 2014  9:04am

Horses, like many things, can be dangerous if improperly interacted with. Regardless of what one judge thinks however, they are not naturally “vicious.”
Tigers are vicious. Tigers could not be ridden by 7-year old-girls, as are horses every day.
This case was about the unfortunate harm to one person and the emotion surrounding it. People who do not understand horses, and especially when accompanied by their children, ought to use more common sense. An entire industry should not suffer because of one person’s lack of awareness.

posted by: ASTANVET | March 28, 2014  10:21am

Leave it to Connecticut - Horses “vicious”???!!  A man brings a kid to a farm, and with no approval of the owner puts a baby’s face to the horses face.  The parent should be classified as reckless - not the horse!  Common sense! This is a great way to spread mis-information about a gentle, and caring animal.  The Supreme court got it wrong.  The legislature can strike their decision if they have the stones to do it.

posted by: Kathy Lauretano | March 28, 2014  9:54pm

I read the decision and your summary of it is very inaccurate.  The State Supreme Court refused to allow the jury in the case to consider whether or not horses are inherently vicious because that question had been previously determined by the law based on common knowledge of the nature of horses.  They are NOT vicious but are commonly understood to be capable of biting, nipping or kicking, etc. for reasons of play, hunger, curiosity, fear, etc.  That is not viciousness.  The question the Supreme Court did say is the jury’s responsibility to resolve is whether or not, possessing the common knowledge of the nature of horses, the owner(s) exercised reasonable care and took adequate precautions to prevent such accidents from occurring and causing injury to persons.  Such a question must be answered on a case-by-case basis in the courts. Read the decision here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/214663256/Horse-Case311CR23A

posted by: Christine Stuart | March 29, 2014  12:03pm

Christine Stuart

Katherine,
I think you missed the point. That’s exactly what we were pointing out because everyone’s interpretation of the case seemed to be different.

“The term ‘vicious’ is nothing more than an archaic term of art that means likely to cause injury under the circumstances. The factual determination is always case by case,” Hugh Hughes wrote.

The decision is being read differently by those pushing for the legislation. The decision doesn’t necessarily make the legislation necessary.

Best
Christine

posted by: robn | April 1, 2014  1:30pm

Christine,

By the end of the article I got it, but what threw me off what the sentence in the 3rd paragraph, “In 2012, a state Appellate Court ruling in the case concluded that horses were vicious, inclined to mischief, and possess a natural propensity to bite.”

I think you need to take the term “vicious out of this early sentence. Its addressed later as a term of art.