Introducing a foal to a halter can be a tricky proposition, and a potentially dangerous one for the handler. Also dangerous, apparently, is standing around and watching the whole affair.

Vicky Cogar was attempting to put a halter on a six-day-old foal when the youngster backed into the stall door, pushing it open. Cogar had left the door unlatched in case things didn’t go well and she needed to make a quick exit from the stall, a sensible precaution. The swinging stall door hit Joann Krieger, who was watching from outside the stall, knocking her to the ground. Krieger, who happens to be Cogar’s mother, suffered injuries in the fall and she filed a lawsuit to recover damages.

An important question for the trial court was the nature of Krieger’s injuries: was she injured by the foal or was she injured by the stall door? It might sound like a silly distinction, but it is an important one. If it was the former, the issue would be Cogar’s strict liability for Krieger’s injuries if the foal was known to be dangerous. If the latter, the legal question would be one of "premises liability" and resolution of the lawsuit would turn on whether Cogar had been negligent in leaving the stall door unlatched.

New York Judge Richard C. Kloch eventually determined that Krieger’s injuries were caused by the foal rather than by Cogar’s negligence in leaving the stall door unlatched. And because he could attach no "vicious propensities" to the very young foal’s behavior, precedent from earlier cases involving a loose bull and a Rottweiler required that he dismiss the lawsuit. He wasn’t happy with the decision, though:

"I look at this case as the plaintiff (Krieger) being hurt by a swinging gate—not a horse," Judge Kloch said. "I believe the question of whether defendant (Cogar) was negligent here is best left to a jury, but (the past cases) do not allow this."

A Natural Inclination

The dispute wound up in a state appellate court in New York, which affirmed the dismissal of Krieger’s lawsuit.

The Cogars "brought the colt to their property no more than two days before the incident," the appellate court said, "and they acknowledged that the colt had exhibited ‘skittish’ or nervous behavior." The court also recounted Vicky Cogar’s deposition testimony that she was aware of the foal’s "tendencies to avoid human contact and seek the protection of his mother."

The foal’s behavior—skittish and avoiding human contact—sounds normal under the circumstances and an unlikely basis for a successful lawsuit. The court agreed:

"The colt’s repeated avoidance behavior, however, does not constitute a ‘proclivity to act in a way that puts others at risk of harm,’ which is required for a finding of vicious propensity," the court explained. "Further, there is no evidence in the record that the colt’s avoidance was ‘abnormal to its class,’ another necessary characteristic of vicious behavior for the purpose of establishing liability."

In other words, when Krieger was injured the foal was acting like normal foals often do when they experience a halter for the first time.

Did the appellate court get it right? Should the law provide a legal remedy when someone is injured by a horse doing nothing more than being a horse?