Horse Owners May be Found Negligent for Stray Horses; Court Allows Injured Plaintiff to Amend Complaint

On November 20, 2014, the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, decided the case entitled Carey v. Schwab, 122 A.D.3d 1142 (3rd Dept. 2014), holding that the Plaintiff was permitted to amend his complaint seeking damages for injuries caused by a stray horse based on a “negligence” cause of action.

While Defendant was inside a tavern, his horse named “Whiskey” got loose and took off.  Whiskey was eventually restrained by Defendant’s companion, who asked Plaintiff to hold the reins. Plaintiff alleges that, as he was holding the reins, Whiskey head-swatted him and stepped on him, causing Plaintiff to lose consciousness and suffer injuries.

Plaintiff initially sued based on a theory of strict liability (which requires a plaintiff to prove that the horse has a “vicious propensity”) but later moved to amend his complaint to include a cause of action for negligence.  The lower court denied the motion but the Third Department reversed.

The first issued addressed by the Court was whether the proposed amendment was plainly without merit.  The general rule articulated by the Court of Appeals for the preceding 10 years was that the owner of a domestic animal may be held legally responsible for injuries inflicted only based upon a theory of strict liability and that a negligence claim does not lie.  However, in Hastings v. Sauve, 21 N.Y.3d 122 (2013), the New York Court of Appeals clarified its rule and permitted the application of ordinary principles of tort law in situations in which “a farm animal—i.e., a domestic animal as that term is defined in Agriculture and Markets Law § 108(7)—is negligently allowed to stray from the property on which the animal is kept.”

In Hastings, the plaintiff was injured when her vehicle struck a cow that had wandered onto a public road as a result of the defendants’ negligent maintenance of a fence on the property where the cow was kept.  The Court of Appeals recognized that to limit recovery to a claim of strict liability where an injury was solely the result of the negligence of the owner of the animal and/or of the property from which the animal strayed—and not due to the animal’s vicious/dangerous propensity—would “immunize defendants who take little or no care to keep their livestock out of the roadway or off of other people’s property.”

In this case, the injury did not occur on Defendant’s property.  Were that the case, then the plaintiff would be limited to a strict liability claim.  If the Defendant were successful in proving that Whiskey did not have a “vicious propensity” then the Plaintiff would not be entitled to recover damages even though the Defendant was negligent in allowing the horse to stray.

The Court granted Plaintiff’s motion to amend the complaint to include a cause of action based on negligence and remitted the matter to the Supreme Court for further proceedings, including additional discovery to the extent necessary.

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