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Charging the Owner of a Dangerous Animal Under a Theory of Strict Liability

Typically, owners of dangerous animals and others engaged in ultrahazardous activities owe an absolute duty to make the animal or activity safe. Failing to do so could subject the animal’s owner or the individual responsible for the ultrahazardous activity to strict liability for any resulting injuries to property or foreseeable victims (individuals to whom a reasonable person would have foreseen a risk of harm).

Strict Liability vs. Negligence

The doctrine of strict liability generally allows individuals injured as a result of another’s failure to make safe a dangerous animal or ultrahazardous activity to recover for their injuries without proving fault. For example, the owner of a wild animal can be strictly liable to an individual injured as a result of the animal escaping from its cage, even if the animal escaped without any fault on the owner’s part. As such, cases based on strict liability can be distinguished from cases based on negligence, which typically require the injured party to demonstrate some degree of fault (e.g., that the owner knew or should have known that the animal could escape).

Prima Facie Case for Strict Liability

An injured party must demonstrate the following elements to establish a prima facie case for strict liability:

  1. The existence of an absolute duty to make a dangerous animal or an ultrahazardous activity safe;
  2. Breach of that duty;
  3. That the breach of duty was the actual and proximate cause of injury (e.g., no unforeseeable intervening cause existed); and
  4. Damage to a person or property.

However, in order to recover under strict liability, the damage to a person or property must have resulted from the “normally dangerous propensity” of the dangerous animal or ultrahazardous activity (e.g., the kind of danger the animal or activity is known for). In line with this limitation, the owner and operator of a dynamite truck would be strictly liable to a bystander injured as a result of the truck exploding, but might not be strictly liable if the bystander was injured as a result of the truck’s blowing a tire.

Strict Liability for Dangerous Animals

Owners of wild animals (e.g., lions, bears) are strictly liable for the damage caused by the trespass of such animals (if reasonably foreseeable) and for the injuries inflicted upon other people by wild animals. The rationale behind this rule is that wild animals can never be fully tamed, and are subsequently considered to be inherently dangerous.

In contrast, owners of domestic animals (e.g., dogs, cats) are generally not strictly liable for the damage caused by trespass or for the injuries caused by such animals. The rationale behind this rule is that domestic animals can often be characterized as inherently non-dangerous. However, the owner of a domestic animal can be strictly liable for injuries caused by the animal if the owner has knowledge that the animal is particularly or abnormally dangerous, such as when the animal has a history of aggressive behavior or biting. In fact, strict liability attaches in a case where the owner has knowledge of the dangerous propensities of a domestic animal, even if the animal has never injured anyone before.

Dog Bite Statutes

In addition, some states have “dog bite” statutes, pursuant to which the owners of dogs can be held strictly liable for dog-bite injuries, even if they had no reason to know the animal was dangerous. In these states, a dog owner is not required to have knowledge of their dog’s dangerous or vicious propensities in order to be held strictly liable if the dog bites or attacks someone.

Strict Liability for Ultrahazardous Activities

Individuals engaged in ultrahazardous activities may also be held strictly liable for injuries caused by the activity. Generally, courts will find an activity to be ultrahazardous if it meets the following three requirements:

  1. Activity involves a substantial risk of serious harm to person or property;
  2. Activity cannot be performed without risk of serious harm no matter how much care is exercised; and
  3. Activity is not commonly engaged in by persons in the community.

Examples of ultrahazardous activities can include blasting, manufacturing explosives, crop dusting and fumigating.

Defenses in Strict Liability Cases

Trespassers generally may not recover under strict liability. This means that a landowner will usually not be strictly liable for injuries inflicted upon a trespasser by a wild animal or abnormally dangerous domestic animal on their land. Rather, landowners are usually only strictly liable when the individuals injured came onto the land as an invitee (e.g., someone hired to do work on the land) or a licensee (e.g., a social guest). However, trespassers may recover under strict liability when the trespasser’s injuries were inflicted by a vicious watchdog that the landowner kept to protect his property (because the landowner knows the watchdog is likely to cause serious bodily harm even to trespassers).

Another defense to strict liability is contributory negligence, in cases where the injured person failed to exercise the degree of care of a reasonable person, and knew of the danger of acting unreasonably. For example, an injured person could be barred from recovering damages under strict liability if they provoked the animal that injured them.

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