The law takes different positions on the responsibility of owners for damage caused by their animals, depending on the type of animal and the circumstances under which the damage occurred. A recent case illustrating this dealt with a road traffic accident caused by a runaway cow.

The cow had escaped from a field and strayed onto a road, where it was hit and killed by the claimant. The claimant was injured and one of the passengers in the car was killed. The claimant sued the cow’s owner under the Animals Act 1971, claiming that the cow had escaped as a result of his negligence. The Act holds owners of animals to be liable for injuries etc. caused by their animals when the injury or damage arises because they have failed to control behaviour which might be expected from the animal in question. The case turned on whether the cow’s owner could reasonably have expected the animal’s behaviour to occur.

The cow had been separated from its calf on the same day it escaped. In such circumstances, a cow’s maternal instincts will often make it restless. However, in order for the cow to get out of the field and onto the road, it had to get over a farm gate and then cross a 12ft cattle grid. The claimant argued, in effect, that in the circumstances special care should have been taken to make sure the cow was contained securely in the field. The defendant farmer argued that the physical ability exhibited by the cow in clambering over the gate and across the cattle grid was beyond anything he could reasonably have anticipated.

At issue was whether the behaviour was a ‘dangerous behavioural characteristic’ of the animal, in which case the farmer would be liable under the Act. Because the animal was behaving in a dangerous and agitated way because of her maternal instincts, she was in effect a wild animal.

After an appeal to the Court of Appeal, the claim against the farmer failed, the Court taking the view that the farmer could not have anticipated the exceptional physical feats of the cow.

The nub of the law relating to animals is what would be reasonable for their owners to do, bearing in mind the range of likely behaviours of the animal, and the possible effects of the animal being uncontrolled.