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Williams v Hawkes: ruling offers new guidance on liability for road accidents involving animals

Posted: 04/12/2017

The Court of Appeal has recently handed down judgment in Williams v Hawkes [2017] EWCA Civ 1846, a case involving a road traffic accident caused by a cow which had escaped onto a road. 

The claimant had been driving his car at night along a dual carriageway when he collided with the animal. While there was limited evidence of the surrounding events, it is thought that the cow bolted after being frightened by something. It was not suggested that the fencing in its enclosure was inadequate.   

Liability for injuries caused by animals is always difficult to assess. While the common law principles of negligence do apply, the Animals Act 1971 is also a factor to consider. In this particular case, the Court of Appeal did not think that the defendant farmer, who has since died, was negligent but did still hold him liable under the terms of the Animals Act.

The Act broadly provides that the keeper of a non dangerous species of animal will be strictly liable for injuries it causes where three conditions are met:

  • the damage is of a kind which the animal would be likely to cause if unrestrained or which is likely to be severe;
  • the likelihood of the damage, or of its being severe, is due to characteristics which are not normally found in animals of the same species except in particular circumstances; and
  • the keeper knows of the characteristics.

Both courts concluded that there was no evidence that the deceased defendant farmer had been negligent in his care of the animal or the maintenance of his fencing and land. However, when considering the requirements of the Act, it was accepted that that the size and weight of the cow meant that if it caused damage, this was likely to be severe. It was also conceded for the purposes of the Act that the farmer knew that a Charolais steer, as this was, could act unpredictably when frightened, and that the Charolais breed was recognised as being flighty in comparison with other types of cattle.

The court at first instance held that the ‘flighty’ nature of the cow’s breed was a factor in its behaviour and ruled in favour of the claimant under the provisions of the Animals Act. However, the farmer’s estate appealed the case and argued that there had been insufficient evidence for the trial judge to have concluded that the animal’s ‘flightiness’ and reaction to surrounding aversive stimuli had caused the accident. His representatives maintained that the real dispute was whether the cow was running (in panic, having been frightened, which would be consistent with its ‘flighty’ characteristics) or was simply in the road having escaped. If the latter was true, there was nothing about its characteristics that directly caused the accident.

The claimant argued that even if the cow had been standing in the road, it was only there because it had been startled by something and had escaped its field.  

The Court of Appeal concluded that the cow was in the road in a panic, having reacted to an averse stimulus, and therefore the combination of its features (size and weight) and unusual characteristics (flightiness) as required by the Act were met. The farmer’s estate was therefore liable under the Animals Act.

Philippa Luscombe, partner in Penningtons Manches’ personal injury team, comments: “This ruling makes it clear that in cases involving collisions between animals and vehicles, the issue is less about how the accident happened and more about the circumstances in which it comes to be on the road and what characteristics it is displaying. The emphasis is on panic and consequent unpredictable behaviour beyond the ‘normal’ characteristics of that type of animal . If the animal is not doing anything out of the ordinary, then any claimant seeking to argue that the owner is liable may have difficulty.”


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