Animal Houdinis – your legal liability?

Yesterday seemed to be an eventful day in Worcestershire with more than one report of escaping animals making their way into the local press. A flock of sheep escaped from their field and caused chaos on the Powick roundabout just outside of Worcester, and a pet dog managed to climb onto the roof of its house in Bromsgrove and needed rescuing by the fire service. If you own a Houdini of the animal world, what are your legal liabilities? Can you be held responsible for damage casued to other people and/or other people’s property by your animal?

You are essentially legally responsible for everything that your animal does, so you can therefore be held financially responsible for any damage caused to other people and property, no matter how big or small the liability. This principle applies to pets, livestock and working animals.

For example, if the pet dog had scrambled onto the roof of an adjoining house and caused roof tiles to fall off and smash, it is likely that the dog’s owner would need to pay for the replacement of those roof tiles. If the sheep had caused a car accident, it is possible that the farmer may be held responsible for any loss and damage suffered by those car drivers. Whether owners can be held liable in this way depends upon the specific circumstances of the accident, and it could result in complex legal arguments on liability and causation, including giving consideration to contributory negligence.

If you can show a break in the chain of causation, you may be able to escape liability. A farmer recently found himself defending an insurance claim by several motorists involved in a car accident, which they argued was caused by some of his cows which had escaped from their field and strayed onto the nearby road. The farmer successfully defended the claim because he could show that the escape was not his fault, and that he had carried out good risk management beforehand. The field gate had been left open by walkers using the footpath, and they had ignored the farmer’s clearly placed signs that the gate needed to be securely shut to stop livestock escaping. Negligence could not therefore be proven against the farmer because he could show that he had done everything reasonably expected of him in the circumstances.

Our property and rural litigation specialist Stefania Bennett has experience with animal liability cases, acting for claimants and defendants. Stefania comments that “Taking steps to avoid litigation in the first place is of course the preferred course of action – accurate and adequate risk management as an animal owner, whether you are a farmer or a pet owner, are therefore essential in order to try and avoid any liability if your animal escapes and causes loss or damage to a third party. If the worst happens however and you require legal advice and assistance in bringing or defending a claim for damage to persons or property caused by animals, Thursfields can help you.”

To contact Stefania to discuss any rural litigation issues, please email her at or telephone her on 01905 677057.

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