The Superior Court of Justice has recently released a decision from Ontario’s first virtual civil trial. Belton v. Spencer will be of interest to those handling rural liability claims as well as horse enthusiasts. Read further for terms like “lunge line”, “riding crop”, and more!  

Mr. Belton owned and operated a stable, where he kept and cared for various horses owned by his clients. On May 31, 2010, he was leading a horse, “May”, along a 200-foot stretch back to the barn. This is where the mystery begins. Something happened during those 200 feet that resulted in multiple fractures to Mr. Belton’s face. Mr. Belton had no recollection of the incident and there were no witnesses. It was Mr. Belton’s conviction that May reared up on her hind legs and struck his face with her front hoof.

Mr. Belton sued the horse’s owner, Ms. Spencer, on account of his injuries. He alleged that Ms. Spencer was liable in negligence for her failure to properly train May and failure to warn of previous behaviour. Additionally, Mr. Spencer alleged liability in Scienter – the common law doctrine applicable to dangerous or mischievous animals.

What Happened to Mr. Belton?

The case proved to have too many hurdles for Mr. Belton. Perhaps the biggest hurdle was the burden of proving that May struck him in the face without any eyewitnesses. The plaintiff argued that the court should make an inference that May reared and struck him based on May’s prior similar behaviour. The plaintiff relied upon three prior rearing-type incidents.

Two of the prior incidents occurred while May was on a “lunge line” – a long strap used for training a horse by having it move in circles around the trainer and respond to commands. Horses may become agitated or confused during this type of exercise, especially younger horses. There were two incidents during this training where May reared up on her hind legs with her front legs approximately five feet off the ground.

The third prior incident occurred while Ms. Spencer was riding May. The horse briefly reared, lifting her front feet about two feet off the ground. This was quickly corrected by Ms. Spencer by smacking May with her riding crop.

These prior events were not persuasive enough for Justice Nightingale to draw an inference that May reared on her hind legs and struck the plaintiff. The prior events were not of the same nature as the alleged incident.  By all accounts, even according to the plaintiff, May was a very well-behaved horse. Without eyewitnesses, there were a host of alternative explanations for Mr. Belton’s injuries, such as a trip-and-fall. Mr. Belton failed to discharge the burden of proof with respect to the incident. Regardless, Justice Nightingale continued with the liability analysis.

Scienter

Under the common law, the doctrine of scienter holds people strictly liable for injuries resulting from their keeping of “dangerous or mischievous” animals. The doctrine requires that a person have knowledge of the dangerous situation they have created. When keeping wild animals, which are known to be dangerous, a person is presumed to have knowledge of their danger. Other animals may be considered “domesticated”, such as horses. For this category of animals, scienter may impose strict liability if the animal has “a dangerous or mischievous propensity that is known to the keeper”. The court summarized the elements of proof for scienter as follows:

  • the defendant was the owner of the animal;
  • the animal had manifested a propensity to cause the type of harm occasioned; and
  • the owner knew of that propensity.

Generally, there must be some correlation between the previously observed behaviour and the behaviour that caused the harm.  In this case, Justice Nightingale found that, even if the horse did rear up and strike the plaintiff, this was not consistent with her prior behaviour. Even the few known incidents were not indicative of a propensity to cause the type of harm the plaintiff described.

Negligence

The negligence analysis unfolded along similar lines as scienter. The court considered various experts’ testimony as to the proper methods for training a horse and the type of behaviour that might have required the defendant to warn to the plaintiff. Ultimately, the court found nothing deficient about the way the defendant trained May. There were various acceptable methods when using a lunge line. The court did not accept assertions that Ms. Spencer aggressively/improperly whipped May during training.

The court also held that Ms. Spencer did not have a duty to warn the plaintiff of the three prior incidents. Witnesses to the events did not feel compelled to tell the plaintiff either. They were considered normal incidents and May was considered a well-behaved horse overall. Further, the plaintiff failed to prove that he would have acted differently if he had been warned.

Voluntary Assumption of Risk

The court also commented on whether the plaintiff voluntarily accepted the risks associated with the incident. Justice Nightingale held that the plaintiff accepted the risks of boarding, handling, and grooming horses. The plaintiff admitted this was a dangerous occupation. All witnesses seemed to agree that horses were “predictably unpredictable” and can be “spooked by just about anything”.  Many of the witnesses had suffered concussions, kicks, bites, and broken bones from horses.

Justice Nightingale’s comments on voluntary assumption of risk would seem to create a heavy burden for any horse trainer / stable worker claiming injuries from a client’s horse. However, the comments were made in the specific context of this case and with reference to the general risks that come with training horses. The horse in this case did not have a dangerous history known to the owner. 

Conclusion

This case demonstrates the evidentiary problems faced by plaintiffs in matters without eyewitnesses. However, even supposing it was proven that May reared and struck the plaintiff, Justice Nightingale’s commentary supports that liability still would not have been established. For a claim of this nature to succeed, in either negligence or scienter, there needs to be a more persuasive history of dangerous behaviour exhibited by the animal.

See Belton v. Spencer, 2021 ONSC 2029 (CanLII) 

Tim Gillibrand

Better known around the water cooler as “Amazon Prime”, Tim has a knack for knowing just what his insurance clients need and delivering it overnight (at a premium). Whether he’s flexing his subrogation muscles, “nerding out” over a new coverage issue or investigating fraud, Tim enjoys thinking outside the box.

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