We need a little horse sense in Hartford

What started with a horse bite at a farm in Milford in 2006 has escalated into a legal battle that has so far seen the courts finding in favor of the child who was bitten, followed by the governor and every voting member of the House of Representatives literally rushing to the defense of the horse.

It began when a father picked up his little boy and held him close to a horse named Scuppy so that the child could get a better look and Scuppy bit the boy on the cheek.

The family sued and after eight years in the courts, the State Supreme Court upheld an Appellate Court decision in the family's favor, holding owners of horses and other domestic animals are responsible for foreseeable injuries caused by their animals, and ordered the suit back to the lower court for trial.

But the Appellate Court had also noted that the horse belongs to "a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious" and the Supreme Court's 6-0 ruling upheld that finding. This gave rise to considerable angst in Connecticut's rather sizeable, not to mention influential, farming and horse-loving communities because classifying horses as vicious could make horses uninsurable, at least in the view of the horse owners.

That four of the Supreme Court justices also said the question of whether an animal is naturally inclined to be vicious must be considered individually, on a case by case basis, was of no apparent comfort to the horse owners or the politicians who took up their cause.

Represented by the powerful Connecticut Farm Bureau and the Connecticut Horse Council, the horse owners sought immediate legislative relief to the dilemma caused by the "vicious" stereotype and they got it, at least up to now.

Gov. Dannel Malloy assumed command of the legislative cavalry as it set out to rescue the horse owners, noting that "Connecticut's agriculture sector contributes $3.5 billion to our economy and accounts for about 28,000 jobs in our state. Protecting owners and handlers of domesticated horses is important to supporting this portion of our economy."

Legislation to undo the court decision, House Bill 5044 - An Act Concerning Domesticated Horses, was helpfully written by the Connecticut Farm Bureau, according to reporting by The Connecticut Post, and quickly introduced. It declared not only horses, but also their close relatives like ponies, donkeys and mules, are not inherently vicious, despite what the courts have said. But it did leave intact the owner's responsibility for a horse's actions, including biting and nipping.

The Connecticut House unanimously passed the bill on April 17 by a vote of 138-0, just 22 days after the Supreme Court decision was announced. A Senate vote is pending.

This has been a breathtaking response to a problem, whether real or imagined. It shows us how legislators can perform with all deliberate speed when the stars are properly aligned, the governor and the majority are of the same party and an election is in the offing.

If the measure does, in fact, prevent the 50,000 horses in Connecticut from becoming uninsurable, the effort was probably worthwhile. But as a model for lawmaking, it is somewhat deficient.

We are no better qualified scientifically than the courts or the legislature to determine if horses or dogs or people may be inherently vicious but we suspect the courts may regret using the word in an otherwise routine decision that affirmed the animal owner's responsibility.

Evil people should be imprisoned, dangerous pit bulls should be leashed and a horse's teeth should be kept away from a 3-year-old's cheek without having to declare an entire species vicious.

As far as we can see, if House Bill 5044 becomes law, owners of horses and their relatives will still be expected to protect the innocent from their attacks, whether vicious or friendly, and failure to do so will be considered on a case by case basis in a court of law. And horse owners won't see their insurance rates soar, which is what this is all about.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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