WHEN IS THE OWNER OF AN ANIMAL STRICTLY LIABLE FOR INJURIES CAUSED BY THE ANIMAL?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Mills v. Smith, 9 Kan. App. 2d 80, 673 P.2d 117 (1983).
This case addresses the following issue:
When is the owner of an animal strictly liable for injuries caused by the animal?
This case revolves around a bite suffered by a child from an animal kept as a pet. Id. at 80. Unlike most cases that can described this way, the “pet” in this situation was not a dog, but a cat—a lion cub, to be exact. Id. The owner of the animal argued that the “one bite rule” that is applied to dogs should apply to the lion cub, while the injured Plaintiff argues that strict liability applies because the cub was not a domestic animal. Id. at 81-82. Ultimately, the court found that “domestic animals” are limited to those expected to be found under the ownership of individuals, and the owner is only liable for injuries caused if the owner has reason to know of the animal’s vicious propensities—the one bite rule. Id. at 82. All other animals are considered “wild animals,” and the owner of a wild animal is strictly liable for all injuries arising from the “dangerous propensity that is characteristic of wild animals of the particular class.” Id.
Plaintiff was only 21 months old at the time of her injury. Id. at 80. Plaintiff and her parents were at a cook out at Defendant’s home. Id. Defendant lived on a large ranch, and had recently purchased an African lion cub. Id. The cub was 9 months old, weighing approximately 90 pounds; basically the size of a very large dog. Id. Defendant warned Plaintiff’s parents not to let the cub around the young child. Id. at 81. Despite this warning, Plaintiff’s parents failed to watch Plaintiff, who gleefully ran towards the young lion. Id. The lion, interpreting Plaintiff’s actions as an invitation for play, reared up on his hind legs and wrapped his jaw around Plaintiff’s head. Id. Defendant quickly restrained the lion, but Plaintiff suffered a cut on her head requiring four stitches. Id. Plaintiff filed suit, alleging strict liability against Defendant as the owner of a wild animal. Id. Defendant argued that owning the cub was appropriate based upon Defendant’s large ranch, and was thus a domestic animal. Id.
The crux of this case was the correct classification of the animal at issue. Id. When an animal is a “wild animal,” no matter how careful or reckless the owner is, liability attaches for harm caused by the animal’s dangerous characteristics. Id. at 82. This is known as strict liability, because there is no culpability on the part of the Defendant; the injury and the ownership of the animal are all that is required for liability to exist. Id. One caveat, though not at issue here, is that the harm arises from the dangerous characteristics of the animal. Id. Here, the dangerous characteristics of the lion are its claws and bite, exactly what caused Plaintiff’s injuries here. Id. Had the Plaintiff been harmed by the lion knocking over the grill onto Plaintiff, that would not be an injury arising from the lion’s dangerous characteristics.
On the other hand, the rules of liability concerning “domestic animals” is controlled by the “one bite rule.” Id. This rule states that an owner is only liable for harm caused by the animal if the owner is somehow negligent, or careless. Id. However, it the animal is known to have “vicious propensities,” the owner is then strictly liable for any harm caused by the animal. Id. Most often, the “vicious propensity” is demonstrated through biting someone prior to Plaintiff, i.e., the dog gets one “free bite.” Id.
The court determined that domestic animals is a very limited group, generally covering only dogs and cats. Id. However, the area in which the owner lives can influence this analysis a bit. Id. For example, Defendant, as the owner of a large ranch, could be expected to have cattle and chickens. Id. A lion, however, was too much. Id. Lions are not known to be domesticated in any regard, and are known as dangerous animals under all circumstances. Id. Thus, the animal at issue here was a “wild animal,” and even though Defendant warned Plaintiff’s parents and acted with (arguably) reasonable care, strict liability made Defendant liable for Plaintiff’s injuries. Id. at 83.