Unfortunate instances can occur when a wild animal is involved. The First Circuit Court of Appeal for the State of Louisiana ruled that defendants Mr. and Mrs. Rivett, who were sued in addition to their insurer, are not liable for the injuries sustained by the plaintiff when he was riding their horse. The plaintiff sued under an ordinary negligence claim under Article 2321 of the Civil Code of Louisiana (amended in 1996), which renders the owner of an animal liable for damage caused by the animal. For the owners of all animals except dogs, an ordinary negligence standard applies. For dogs, a strict liability standard was retained.
In order to recover under Article 2321, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) the defendant was required to adhere to a specific standard of care (the duty factor); (2) the defendant did not adhere to the appropriate standard (the breach of duty factor); (3) the defendant’s failure to adhere to the standard in fact caused the plaintiff to be injured (the cause-in-fact factor); (4) the injuries of the plaintiff were legally caused by defendant’s failure to adhere to the standard (the degree of liability or sphere of protection factor); and (5) the plaintiff’s actual damages (the damages factor). If the plaintiff fails to show any of these elements, there is no liability. The First Circuit referred to this analysis as the duty/risk analysis.
On appeal, the plaintiff asserted that the trial court committed five legal errors. The First Circuit found that the trial court did err by not instructing the jury with the correct standard with which to evaluate the defendants’ conduct and therefore set aside the jury verdict finding for the defendants. The court reviewed the case de novo, without giving any weight to the factual findings of the incorrectly instructed jury as it usually would, and still found that the plaintiff had not been able to establish that the defendants were negligent for the injuries caused by the startled horse.
In this case, the defendants own four horses and keep them for recreational purposes. They had owned Breeze, the horse at issue, for approximately one year and had not experienced nor knew of any previous occasions when Breeze was uncontrollable. The evidence at trial was contradictory as to what the plaintiff told Mrs. Rivett about his previous riding experience and exactly when the horse began to run, against the plaintiff’s wishes. However, there was uncontradicted testimony by Mrs. Rivett that Breeze was the calmest of the four horses they owned and had never been uncontrollable or hard to handle. Mrs. Rivett rode Breeze frequently and never saw any indication that Breeze had a bad disposition or a mean spirit. In addition, an equine behavior expert examined Breeze and found nothing that would lead him to conclude that Breeze was uncontrollable or skittish.
Since the appellate court found that the plaintiff could not show that the Rivetts were negligent, it dismissed the plaintiff’s case and charged him with the costs of the appeal.
If you have been injured by an animal other than a dog, you must be able to show that the owner failed to comport with a duty of care. If you have been injured by a dog, the owner is strictly liable for the damage, and the standard the plaintiff must prove is not as high. Speaking with an attorney about this burden of proof, as well as financial compensation for harm suffered, is the best course of action when trying to remedy such an incident.