Mountain Law: Starting from scratch: Animal liability law
Most animals will never harm anyone. But unfortunately, sometimes animals injure people or property. This article provides an overview of Colorado law with respect to injuries caused by animals.
Injuries caused by domestic animals other than dogs: In the case of domestic animals other than dogs, Colorado follows the traditional rule which hold that an owner is generally not liable for injuries caused by an animal unless the owner knew or should have known that the animal is vicious or has dangerous propensities. This rule is referred to as the “first bite” rule because it can be difficult to prove that the owner is liable unless the animal has injured someone at least once before.
Dog bites: In the case of dogs, there is a special statute that permits a victim to recover for physical injuries. Unlike under the “first bite rule,” the statute does not require the victim to present evidence about the dog’s vicious or dangerous propensities, or about the owner’s knowledge that the dog might bite. However, if the victim can show that the dog’s owner knew the dog might bite, the victim can seek to have the dog euthanized at the owner’s expense.
The dog statute applies to “any domesticated animal related to the fox, wolf, coyote, or jackal.” The statute permits recovery only for physical injury, not for mental or psychological pain and suffering. The statute permits recovery regardless of whether the injury occurred on private or public land. However, the victim cannot recover if he was trespassing when the injury occurred or if the victim knowingly provoked the animal.
Wild animals: A person who harbors a wild animal, which by its nature is vicious and unpredictable, generally will be liable for any injury caused by the animal however the injury occurs. Colorado case law has said that an undomesticated coyote is a wild animal for purposes of this rule. Other types of animals would be analyzed by the courts on a case-by-case basis.
In the case of wild animals kept on display for the public – such as at a zoo – the animal’s owner must take reasonable steps to protect the public from harm. For example, the jury was asked to decide in one case if the Denver Zoo had taken reasonable steps to protect a young girl from being bitten by a zebra when she was able to reach into its cage.
Trespassing animals: If an animal physically injures an owner or member of the household on which the animal is trespassing, the animal’s owner may be liable for the damages regardless of whether the property has a fence. However, a property owner cannot recover for property damage, such as damages to crops, grass, garden or vegetables, caused by trespassing animals unless the property has a fence meeting certain standards. This is known as the “fence out” rule.
Other cases: If an animal does not have dangerous propensities and is not trespassing at the time of the injury, its owner can nonetheless be liable for negligence or negligence per se (which occurs when the owner violates an ordinance with respect to the animal). For example, a rancher was found negligent for damages caused by herding cattle on a public road at night, and the owner of a horse was found negligent per se for allowing the horse to run loose in violation of a local ordinance.
It’s a good idea for animal owners to familiarize themselves with local law and neighborhood covenants to minimize the chances of an animal causing them to be liable for damages. Also, an animal’s owner should listen to neighbors’ concerns about the animal and take reasonable steps to address those concerns, which might prevent future liability.
Noah Klug is principal of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, a general law practice in Summit County emphasizing real estate, business law and litigation. He may be reached at (970)468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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