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Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My! Wild Animal Attacks and Personal Injury Liability in California

We discussed animal injuries in a previous blog post, but we stuck to the topic of injuries caused by domesticated animals. Setting aside our lovable furry companions and trusted farm animals, however, we now turn to the realm of wild animals and all the situations in which they attack, maul, sting, bite, and otherwise injury the unlucky humans they come in contact with.

Strict Liability for Keeping Wild Animals

As a general rule, domesticated animals are considered tame and their owners are subject to negligence liability for any injuries they may cause—in other words, their owners have to take reasonable precautions to protect other people from their animals, such as keeping dogs on leash and preventing livestock from roaming onto roads and highways, but they won’t be held responsible for their animals’ unforeseen violent or destructive behavior unless they were negligent in allowing it to occur.

Wild animals, on the other hand, are considered inherently dangerous and, should anyone choose to keep them in captivity, their keepers are subject to strict liability for any injuries they may cause. This means they can be held liable for any injuries that the animal causes, even if they exercised reasonable care in attempting to prevent such harm.

Premises Liability for Injuries Caused by Wild Animals

People get injured by wild animals all the time and in many different ways. When a wild animal injury occurs on someone else’s land, however, the victim may be able to sue the property owner to recover damages. The common law rule of animals ferae naturae (i.e., wild-natured) prevents property owners from being held strictly liable for animal attacks that occur on their land, but it doesn’t protect property owners from liability if they were negligent in preventing the injury.

To prove negligence in this type of animal attack case, the usual rule is applied and the plaintiff must prove four elements: duty of care, breach of that duty, causation, and damages.

Historically, a property owner’s duty of care depended on his relationship with the person using his property. Trespassers were owed no duty of care whatsoever, or at most had be given a warning regarding dangerous conditions on the property, while business invitees and social guests were owed a higher duty of care. In California, these categories have been replaced with a uniform requirement that landowners must exercise a duty of reasonable care to everyone who uses their property.

Exactly what it means for a property owner to exercise reasonable care isn’t always clear, but at least in the context of insect and spider bites, California case law provides an answer: a property owner “does not have a duty to protect or prevent bites from harmful insects where: (1) it is not generally known that the specific insect is indigenous to the area; (2) the homeowner has no knowledge that a specific harmful insect is prevalent in the area where his residence is located; (3) the homeowner has on no occasion seen the specific type of harmful insect either outside or inside his home; and (4) neither the homeowner nor the injured guest has seen the specific insect that bit the guest either before or after the bite occurred.” Brunelle v. Signore, 215 Cal. App. 3d 122 (1989).

The duty of care was discussed in more detail in a Florida case, St.Joseph’s Hosp. v. Cowart, 891 So. 2d 1039 (Fla. App. 2004), which involved a man who was bitten by a black widow spider after being admitted to a hospital. As the court explained, black widows were indigenous and couldn’t be completely excluded from buildings in the area, the hospital had contracted with a pest control company, there was no evidence of a spider infestation, and there was no evidence that the pest control company wasn’t performing its services satisfactorily. Based on this evidence, the court found that the hospital sufficiently met its duty of reasonable care. The court also held that the hospital didn’t have a duty to warn the plaintiff because there had been no previous black widow sightings and it had no knowledge that they presented a dangerous condition of the property.

Liability for Wild Animal Attacks on Public Land

In some jurisdictions, state and local governments can be held responsible for wild animal injuries that occur on public land. See, e.g., Carlson v. State, 598 P.2d 969 (Alaska 1979); Booth v. State, 207 Ariz. 61 (Ariz.App. 2004). In Arroyo v. California, 34 Cal.App.4th 755 (1995), however, the court held that the State of California couldn’t be held responsible for a mountain lion mauling that took place in a state park. The court explained that the California Tort Claims Act protects public entities from liability for injuries caused by natural conditions on unimproved public property, and “wild animals are a natural part of the condition of unimproved public property within the meaning of the statute.” As the court further explained, “public entities are under no obligation to even provide signs warning of such dangers.”

The Ninth Circuit Federal Court ruled in a similar matter in Martin v. U.S., 546 F.2d 1355 (9th Cir. 1976) and concluded that the United States wasn’t liable for injuries caused by a bear attack in Yellowstone National Park. The plaintiffs, the court pointed out, disregarded the advice of a park employee and intentionally failed to go to the Ranger Station or the Visitors’ Center, thus avoiding receiving warnings about bears. As the court noted, “All of the warnings which the Park Service could devise will do no good as to persons such as [the plaintiffs] who, in effect, refuse to put themselves in contact with persons from whom they would receive advice, including warnings, and by whom they would be told not to camp at a place they seemed determined to camp.” They also camped in an area where they knew that camping was unauthorized, and the court concluded that “to require the Park Service to post signs and warnings on every boardwalk, path or trail every few hundred feet throughout a park as extensive as Yellowstone would not only be prohibitive in cost but would destroy the park’s beauty as well.”

More Information — Contact the Law Offices of Nelson C. Barry

For more information about liability for animal attacks, general negligence or premises liability issues, or to discuss the details of your case, call the the law offices of Nelson C. Barry at 415-587-0550. Our legal team has the skills and experience to help you understand your rights and offer advice to resolve your claims in timely, efficient, and positive manner.

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