A ruling by the House of Lords last week that horseowners are strictly liable for injury or damage caused by their animals – even if they are not to blame – could see insurers pulling out of the public liability sector.

“This is a very bad day for the horse world,” said Barry Fehler, managing director of South Essex Insurance Brokers. “It appears to us that the ruling is based on the Law Lords interpretation of the Dangerous Animals Act, which is ambiguous. Very simply, they say that it is natural for horses to panic, and the owner was aware of this and therefore is responsible for their actions. We are interested in legal opinion as to whether this same ruling could apply to other animals, such as cattle and sheep.

“We have not yet had time to take legal advice, butas far as I can see the only way out of it is to think about a Private Members Bill and to have the act re-drafted.”

Five Law Lords, with a three to two majority, dismissed an appeal by Dr Andrew Henley and his wife Susan of Chudleigh, near Newton Abbot, Devon.

The accident happened when their horses Charlie Brown, a New Forest pony, Tango, a Dartmoor pony, and Jester, broke out of a well-fenced six-acre field after panicking for an unknown reason.

The ponies strayed on to the A380 Torquay to Exeter road just after midnight on August 29, 1996, and collided with cars, causing serious injuries.

One of the road crash victims, Hossein Mirvahedy, a hotel manager, sued for damages, and Dr and Mrs Henley are now facing a potentially substantial compensation bill. Mr Mirvahedy, who suffered serious face injuries, failed in his claim at Exeter County Court in August 2000 but won in the Court of Appeal a year later.

The Law Lords upheld the appeal judges’ decision that, even though the Henleys were in no way negligent, they were liable under the 1971 Animals Act to pay compensation, which has yet to be assessed.

The Animals Act states that the keeper of an animal, which does not belong to a dangerous species, is still liable for damage caused due to characteristics not normally found in the species, except at particular times or in particular circumstances.

Added Mr Fehler: “One of our immediate concerns is that insurers could panic. The market is already difficult and companies willing to take on public liability cover are very few. This could reduce even further. Even worse, the liability cover that most people have in the form of, for instance, their household insurance, could be redefined to exclude this sort of situation.”