Saturday, November 10, 2012

Strict Liability/Wild Animals

The following was asked by a reader of the blog:

There is an example of Strict Liability on your blog in which plaintiff goes to a defendant's house who has defanged his snake. Plaintiff sees the snake and not realizing that it has been defanged and hurts himself. Plaintiff has a valid suit under strict liability. The confusion is that the snake does not bite or attempts to bite the plaintiff to have a valid claim under strict liability. Please throw some light on it.

Response:

The first thing to keep in mind is that a possessor of a wild animal is subject to strict liability to another for the harm done by the animal to the other person's body, land, or personal property. This is true regardless of how much care was taken by the possessor in trying to prevent that harm. The one qualification here to keep in mind is that the liability is limited to harm that results from the dangerous propensities that are characteristic of the wild animal or any dangerous propensities that are not characteristic of that particular wild animal, but that the possessor knows or has reason to know his animal possesses.

So the question must then be asked whether the ability of an animal to scare someone is a dangerous propensity of that animal which triggers the rules for strict liability. The answer is yes, if the animal is one that customarily causes fear in people. This is because if the animal is one that customarily causes fear in people, then that trait (fear-causing) would be a dangerous propensity of the animal, and any damgages directly caused by that dangerous propensity (such as a person harming himself due to the fear) would be recoverable.

And the fact that it appears the owner acted reasonably in defanging the snake would not be considered, as reasonableness is considered when analyzing negligence, but not when analyzing strict liability.

In contrast, if a wild animal escapes and is sleeping in the middle of a sidewalk and someone does not look where he/she is walking and trips over the animal resulting in an injury to that person, then it is not necessarily strict liability because the type of harm (tripping over the animal) is not the type of harm caused by the animal's dangerous propensities.

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