A recent case in the French courts provides an interesting insight into the legal framework surrounding the civil liability of owners for accidents caused by their pets.
The story begins with two members of a pony club from Reyrieux, in the department of Ain (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes), who were out riding their horses along a track, when two dogs appeared from over an embankment running towards them.
One of the horses panicked and, in a gallop, threw the rider, who was knocked unconscious. She was transported to hospital, where she was diagnosed with an injury that permanently impaired her speech and hearing, obliging her later to change her employment.
As a result, the victim brought an action against the dog owners for damages.
The report of the gendarmes who attended the incident stated that the dogs did not come within 10 metres of the horses and were not aggressive. Nevertheless, their sudden appearance over the brow of the embankment clearly panicked one of the horses.
The responsibility of owners concerning the behaviour of their pets is set out in Article 1243 of the Civil Code, which states: "the owner of an animal, or the person in charge of it, is liable for the damage caused by the animal, whether it was in their care or because it was lost or had escaped".
In interpreting this law, the courts have determined that the victim must prove a causal link between the behaviour of the animal and the accident. That is to say, the animal must have played an ‘active role’.
Thus, if a dog bites the victim, clearly a causal link is established. However, if there has been no contact the victim must prove their case.
In this case, although there had been no contact, and the dogs were neither aggressive or in close proximity to the horse, in the hearing before the Court of Appeal the judges ruled in favour of the victim, stating that; "it is the responsibility of dog keepers to ensure that they do not frighten animals or people encountered on public roads".
The dog owners appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, the Cour de Cassation, who did not take such a sweeping view as the lower court, but ruled that, as there was clearly a causal link between the sudden and "abnormal" appearance of the dogs and the behaviour of the horse, the dog owners were liable.
The court ordered the dog owners to pay €800,000 in compensation to the victim.
To the relief of the dog owners, the legal costs of the dispute and the compensation payable were covered by their insurer.
It is not normally necessary to take out distinct insurance cover for third party damage or accidents caused by a domestic animal, for public liability can be obtained through your house insurance policy, subject to the requirements of your insurer.