Dog owners held responsible for riding accident ordered to pay €815,000

Two dog owners in France have been ordered to pay €815,000 (£743,000) in compensation and costs after they were held responsible for a serious riding accident — despite the fact their pets did not come within 10m of a horse.

One rider — referred to only as Audrey E — suffered brain damage in a fall while out hacking with a friend.

The French court of appeal ruling described how two dogs suddenly ran out in front of the horses, causing one of them to spook.

The dogs’ owners took the case to appeal, arguing they would only have been responsible if they had an active role in the accident. They also said that the dogs had not gone near the horses or behaved in an unusual or aggressive way.

The claimant’s counsel countered that the actions of the dogs had been sufficient to cause one of the horses to panic and bolt — an argument supported by the court, which said the experienced rider would not have fallen had the dogs not run out in front of the horses.

The “big dogs” were running free off-lead and had appeared in front of the riders without warning — leading the court to conclude that there was a “casual link” between the dogs’ behaviour and the accident.

“Dog owners must make sure that their dogs do not scare animals or people encountered on a public path,” the ruling said.

The compensation and costs are expected to be met by the dog owners’ insurance policies, under their responsabilité civile cover.

Hannah Bradley, solicitor at The Equine Law Firm, said the French court had set an “extreme precedent” and a similar decision was unlikely in the UK.

“French legislation regarding dog ownership has been, in recent years, robustly amended as a result of increased political pressure following a series of fatal dog attacks and apparently so as to encourage the requirement for careful policing of dog ownership,” she explained.

“French legislation categorises dogs by breed, and imposes certain requirements on owners in accordance with the category. Owners also have an obligation not to allow their dogs to stray more than 100m from their property.”

Ms Bradley said that in the UK, injury and damage caused by dogs is regulated by the Animals Act 1971 and that because dogs are categorised as “non-dangerous species”, owners would only be liable for damage in specific circumstances. Claimants would need to show that:

– The damage suffered was of a kind likely to be caused unless the dogs were restrained, or was likely to be severe if caused by the dogs

– The likelihood of the damage is due to the characteristics of the dogs which are not normally found in dogs, or not normally found except in particular times or particular circumstances

The characteristics were known to the keepers of the dogs.

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“The exact circumstances of how the dogs were acting is not clear, but it is possible that if the dogs were simply running across the road, or even barking when the incident happened, the owners of the dogs would be able to argue that the behaviour demonstrated was normal for their species, and successfully defend the claim if it occurred in the UK,” Ms Bradley said.

She noted that biting does not fall under behaviour UK courts considered “normal” for a dog.

Keepers of animals will usually be able to protect their position by securing a policy of insurance with a reputable insurer. However, cases which seemingly widen the scope of potential liability for accidents (which will be closely followed by insurers) are likely to increase the premiums which animals owners are required to pay,” she added.

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