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2 March 2021
Georgina Crawford Wins in the High Court

The case of Ford v Seymour-Williams [2021] EWHC 312 (QB) threw up an Animals Act 1971 argument unprecedented at High Court or Appellate level, and as such has attracted media attention with The Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Horse and Hound covering the case.

The claim arose from a hunting accident. The Claimant was employed by the Defendant and was riding a horse kept at the Defendant’s premises.  At a cubbing meet, the horse reared up and went over backwards, crushing the Claimant, who sustained severe injuries. The horse died within minutes.

The expert evidence was unable to conclude which of two possibilities caused the horse’s death, and the experts agreed that the cause of death will in fact never be known. The two main possibilities were either a cardiovascular catastrophe leading to the horse napping and rearing due to a ‘feeling’ that something was wrong, for instance due to a massive sudden drop in blood pressure, or alternatively, the horse unexpectedly rearing, leading to a whiplash-type fracture to the base of the skull when hitting the ground.

The main battleground was whether an accident in these circumstances could be a proper fit for section 2(2)(b) of the Animals Act, which provides that ‘the likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to characteristics of the animal which are not normally found in animals of the same species or are not normally so found except at particular times or in particular circumstances.’

Counsel for the Claimant, Giles Mooney QC, argued that there was no requirement to prove the exact circumstances and that previous caselaw has stripped the Act of its content.  He also argued that the Claimant was employed on the day in question and therefore the Defendant could not benefit from the statutory defence of voluntary acceptance of risk.

Georgina Crawford argued that the scope of the Act should not be further broadened, which would be the inevitable outcome if the case were successfully prosecuted on the basis of possibilities. She further argued that the most likely cause was the cardiovascular catastrophe explanation, which cannot amount to characteristic behaviour for the purposes of the Act, relying on previous case law which requires described and repeatable behaviour. She argued further that where the veterinary experts were unfamiliar with a horse rearing in the midst of a cardiovascular catastrophe, then the Defendant keeper could not be attributed with knowledge (the third limb of section 2 (2) test.)

Giles Mooney QC disagreed, arguing that the Defendant had broad knowledge that horses can rear for any reason. Georgina also argued that whilst the Claimant was generally employed by the Defendant, she was enjoying an independent perk on the day in question, hunting an excellent hunter with a prestigious pack which she could not otherwise have afforded to do.

Michael Kent QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court judge, found that the Claimant was employed on the day in question, but preferred Georgina Crawford’s arguments on the construction of the Act, and dismissed the claim. 

The case will have a significant impact on future Animal’s Act claims where the circumstances leading to injury are unclear.  Animals Act claims have proceeded almost unbounded in the wake of Mirvahedy which sent shockwaves through the rural insurance industry and led to proposed reforms to the Animals Act, which despite lobbying, have never been introduced.

The judgment in this case is therefore likely to be very well received by rural insurers.

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Georgina Crawford

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