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Ask H&H: compensation for escaped horse’s death

Q: IN January 2005 my horse — kept at livery — was killed on the road. The liveries were turned out at night in a field enclosed by a patchy hedge and wooden fence encircled with an electric fence. One night, several horses escaped on to the road and mine was killed by a car. The next day, the yard owners started erecting a new, stronger fence. I discovered the electric tape was very old, with broken wire thread in places, even though the owners had claimed the fence was adequate. I have tried to get compensation from them, but without success. I am taking legal advice, but my horse was only worth £6,000 and it would cost a lot to go to court, even with a “no win, no fee” agreement with my solicitor.
LA, Lincs

THE tragic consequences of this incident serve to remind us of the risks involved in keeping equines. As the case is already in the hands of a solicitor, it would be inappropriate for another legal professional to comment on the case’s specific circumstances, but we asked Stuart Farr of Laytons Solicitors for advice on the laws involved.

“Without commenting specifically on this particular situation, it is nevertheless helpful to keep in mind the general principles which apply to those who keep horses,” Stuart explains.

“In general, there is no common law duty to fence land. A landowner does, however, have a duty to ensure that animals kept on their land do not stray, and a claim for damages may lie against a landowner where it can be shown that the escape was caused by their negligence. In addition, the Animals Act 1971 provides that a landowner may be liable for damage caused by a horse or any other animal which escapes, whether on to a road or other land.

“Recent case law has prompted debate as to whether, in particular, the keeper of a horse is strictly liable for damage caused by an animal when its behaviour in the circumstances was in no way abnormal for its species.

“It might be argued that no fence is totally impenetrable,” Stuart adds.

“A poorly maintained fence, however, which has clear gaps and weaknesses, will expose a landowner to a claim in the event of an escape. What amounts to negligence will, in most cases, be decided on the facts of each case, but the practical approach to maintenance taken by the landowner will usually have a bearing on a court’s decision. A patchy fence, or hedge with gaps, would certainly be cause for concern.

“Should a tragic situation such as this occur, the funding of claims is always a worry for potential claimants,” says Stuart.

“The risks associated with a claim should always be weighed up; check your insurance policies to see if any of them cover the risks, or offer legal expenses cover.

“For landowners, prevention is better than cure. They should regularly inspect fences and barriers, and keep a brief note of the dates and outcomes as these could assist in defeating any negligence claims. Electric fencing has practical benefits, but extreme caution should be exercised if used as the primary barrier.”

Information

Stuart Farr, Laytons Solicitors
Tel: 0161 834 2100 www.laytons.com

This Q&A was first published in Horse & Hound (14 February, ’08)

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