Parsing the Supreme Court’s ‘Vicious’ Horse Ruling
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.”