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Are Horse Owners Responsible for Injuries Caused When Their Animals Are Provoked by a Third Party?

Throughout Illinois, horseback riding is a common leisure activity. It is also one with many inherent risks, including the risk of serious injury. In the case of Forsyth v. Dugger, the Illinois Appellate Court considers whether horse owners are responsible if riders are injured when their horse is unintentionally provoked by a third party.  

The Facts

On May 3, 1984, Mr. Forsyth, who was 15 years old, went horseback riding with Mr. Tucker and Mr. Hebetway using horses owned by the Tucker family. Each person rode his own horse. Mr. Forsyth’s had a bridle with a rope attached, but there was no saddle. However, he proceeded to ride bareback when Mr. Tucker told him a saddle wasn’t necessary. (Mr. Tucker said his statement was a joke in response to Mr. Forsyth’s request for a saddle.)

After riding in the pasture for approximately 20 minutes, the group moved to the road. When they approached the Dugger residence, Mr. Dugger indicated that he also wanted to ride. He then jumped onto Mr. Forsyth’s horse’s back, planning to ride double. Mr. Forsyth says he asked Mr. Dugger not to do so; however, Mr. Dugger claims Mr. Forsyth was fine with it.

When Mr. Dugger mounted the horse, it moved forward several steps. Mr. Forsythe ducked to avoid colliding with a tree branch, which then struck Mr. Dugger and caused him to fall from the horse. Mr. Forsyth claims that Mr. Dugger grabbed him on the way down and also caused him to fall. As a result, Mr. Forsythe struck his arm on a ceramic flower pot and received significant cuts.

Mr. Forsythe filed a lawsuit against Mr. Dugger and the Tuckers. The suit had four counts, two of which were against Mr. Dugger and were settled. The remaining counts, those against the Tuckers, alleged that the defendants had violated the Animal Control Act and were liable for common law negligence.

Owner Responsibility for Injuries Caused by their Animals

Under the Animal Control Act, owners are responsible for injuries when all of the following conditions are met: the injury is caused by their animal, the animal is not provoked, the injured party behaves peaceably in the animal’s presence, and the injured party has a legal right to be present at the place where the injury occurs. To demonstrate that an owner is liable under the Animal Control Act, plaintiffs must prove that all of these requirements were fulfilled during the incident that led to injury.

Furthermore, under the common law, owners have no general duty to safeguard against injuries caused by their animals except in cases where the owner is aware that the animal has aggressive tendencies that differ from typical behavior for their species.

The Decision

After several depositions were conducted, the Tuckers submitted a motion for summary judgment. When the trial court denied the motion, the Tuckers filed a motion to reconsider. The court then reversed its decision and granted summary judgement.

The trial court ruled that the Tuckers had not violated the Animal Control Act since the horse was provoked when Mr. Duggar jumped onto its back. In addition, the trial court found no proof that the horse had a known aggressive disposition, therefore the Tuckers had no duty to protect Mr. Forsyth from injury.

Mr. Forsyth appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing the trial court had erred in concluding there was insufficient evidence to find in his favor. In reviewing the case, however, the appellate court agreed with the trial court’s decision and rationale on both counts.

The appellate court noted that the Animal Control Act makes owners liable for injuries when the animal acts of its own volition, but it does not make owners responsible in cases where an “outside stimulus” provokes the animal to react. The appellate court held that because the horse was provoked, the trial court’s ruling was correct and Mr. Forsyth was not entitled to recover damages. The appellate court also noted that it doesn’t matter whether the act of provocation was intentional or unintentional; similarly, it doesn’t matter whether the act was perpetrated by the injured party or some other party.

Additionally, the appellate court addressed the negligence count by referring to the common law rule for recovery of injuries caused by animals, which was established in Domm v. Hollenbeck (1913). The court said, “The owner of an animal is bound to take notice of the general propensities of the class to which it belongs, but he is under no obligation to guard against injuries which he has no reason to expect on account of some disposition of the individual animal different from the species generally, unless he has notice of such   disposition. The owner or keeper of a domestic animal of a species not inclined to mischief, such as dogs, horses and oxen, is not liable for any injury committed by it to the person of another, unless it [can] be shown that the animal had a mischievous propensity to commit such an injury and the owner had notice of it or that the injury was attributable to some other neglect on his part.”

Mr. Forsyth argued that the “…attributable to some other neglect on [the plaintiff’s] part” language allows him to recover damages under the concept of simple negligence. In other words, he claims it’s not necessary to prove the horse had exhibited aggressive behavior in the past or that the Tuckers were aware of it. The appellate court rejected this argument, noting that all prior negligence cases involving animal-caused injuries required owners to have knowledge of the animal’s atypical behavior. The court also noted that even if the Domm rationale were to allow for recovery based on simple negligence, it wouldn’t apply in this case since that was not the theory pled by Foysyth.

Conclusion

Under the Animal Control Act, animal owners are not liable for injuries their animal cause when they are provoked. Furthermore, the injured party does not need to be the source of provocation in order for the owner to escape liability; provocation by third parties also bars plaintiffs from recovering damages.

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