Premises liability for injuries caused by wild animals

People get injured by wild animals all the time and in many different ways. When the injury occurs on someone else’s land, one issue that can come up is whether the victim can sue the property owner for damages.

Under the common law rule of animals ferae naturae, property owners are generally held immune from liability for these sorts of injuries. The rule only precludes strict liability, however, and property owners can still be found liable for negligence.

Consider the following cases:

  • In Carlson v. State, 598 P.2d 969 (Alaska 1979), the court determined that the state could be held liable for a bear attack at a roadside tourist stop where state officials had failed to remove trash and hadn’t posted any warning signs. Factors that were relevant to the state’s liability for negligence, the court noted, included “the extent of the State’s knowledge of the presence of bears at the Robe River turnout; whether it was reasonably foreseeable that a bear would attack a person who was using the turnout; and whether the State had sufficient knowledge of danger so as to give rise to a duty to post warning signs.”
  • In Booth v. State, 207 Ariz. 61 (Ariz.App. 2004), the court held that the state was liable for damages caused by a foreseeable elk collision on a highway where it failed to take reasonable preventative measures such as installing fencing and warning signs.
  • The Supreme Court of Arkansas in Kay v. Kay, 306 Ark. 322 (1991), found no liability for a brown recluse spider bite where “there was no showing that any kind of spider, much less a brown recluse, had been actually seen on the premises, nor was there evidence that such a harmful insect had ever been seen in the area in which the home was located. There was no evidence from which it could be determined how or, more importantly when, the spider came upon the premises. In these circumstances… it would be unfair and a virtual declaration of absolute liability to hold the Kays responsible for Mary’s injury.”
  • A California court similarly explained in Brunelle v. Signore, 215 Cal. App. 3d 122 (1989), that 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.”
  • In Arroyo v. California, 34 Cal.App.4th 755 (1995), the court held that the state wasn’t liable for a mountain lion mauling in 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.” Moreover, “Public entities are under no obligation to even provide signs warning of such dangers.”
  • CeBuzz, Inc. v. Sniderman, 171 Colo. 246 (1970) involved a woman who was bitten by a tarantula that was hiding in a bunch of bananas purchased at the defendant’s store. The court held that the defendant was liable for her injuries, explaining that “the defendant… had notice of the probability of the existence of a dangerous condition in the bananas. Neither [the employee who had previously found a tarantula], nor any other employee, made any effort prior to the plaintiff’s injury to inspect the bananas offered for sale for the purpose of discovering and eliminating such insects. When confronted with the knowledge that insects of this nature might be found in the bananas which it was offering for sale, we believe that a clear duty was imposed upon the defendant to take necessary measures to guard against the possibility of injury to its customers when they handle and select bananas for purchase.”
  • In Wamser v. City of St. Petersburg, 339 So.2d 244 (Fla. App. 1976), the court held that the city wasn’t liable for injuries caused by a shark attack because there had never been any similar attacks or other indications that the beach was unsafe, making the threat of a shark attack unforeseeable.
  • A Florida appellate court concluded that the state wasn’t liable for an alligator attack in a state park in Palumbo v. State Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, 487 So. 2d 352 (Fla.App. 1986). As the court explained, “the law of Florida does not require the owner or possessor of land to anticipate the presence of or to guard an invitee or trespasser against harm from wild animals unless one of two conditions exists: the animal has been reduced to possession, or the animal is not indigenous to the locality but has been introduced onto the premises.”
  • St. Joseph’s Hosp. v. Cowart, 891 So. 2d 1039 (Fla. App. 2004), involved a man who was bitten by a black widow spider after being admitted to a hospital. The court held that the hospital wasn’t liable for his injuries because it didn’t breach its duty of ordinary care. 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 pest control company wasn’t performing its services satisfactorily. 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 constituted a dangerous condition of the property.
  • In Williams v. Gibbs, 123 Ga. App. 677 (1971), a woman fell and broke her hip after encountering a rattlesnake on the sidewalk in front of a gas station. The property owner testified that no one had seen any rattlesnakes on the property during the six years that he had owned it. Based on this evidence, the court held that the threat of rattlesnakes was unforeseeable and that the property owner wasn’t negligent for failing to keep the grass mowed short around the sidewalk.
  • A Georgia appellate court held that a homeowners association could be held liable for an alligator attack in The Landings Association v. Williams, 309 Ga. App. 321 (2011). Although the court acknowledged that property owners don’t have a general duty to anticipate or protect people from wild animals under the common law doctrine of animals ferae naturae, it explained that property owners still have a statutory duty to exercise ordinary care in keeping their premises safe, and this duty extends beyond physical defects in the property to encompass foreseeable risks caused by the presence of dangerous wild animals. The association, the court ruled, breached this duty of ordinary care by failing to take reasonable precautions to protect against alligator attacks. A dissenting judge would have applied the doctrine of animals ferae naturae more generously because there had never been any alligator attacks on the property and the risk of such attacks was minimal. Even if the association could be found negligent for failing to prevent the alligator attack, the dissenting judge still would have precluded recovery because there was evidence that the victim was aware of the risk of alligator attacks.
  • In Estate of Hilston v. State, 2007 MT 124, the Montana Supreme Court held that the state wasn’t liable for a grizzly bear attack in a wildlife management area. As the court explained, property owners who allow the public onto their land for free for recreational purposes have no duty of care with regard to “conditions of the property”—including the existence of wild animals—under the state’s Recreational Use Immunity Act.
  • The plaintiff in Deviney v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 280 Neb. 450 (2010), claimed to have contracted West Nile Virus from mosquito bites that she received while working on the defendant’s property. The court refused to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff provided sufficient evidence that the defendant had failed to exercise reasonable care in informing her about the dangers posed by mosquitoes on the property and protecting her from that hazard.
  • In Belhumeur v. Zilm, 157 N.H. 233 (2008), the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that property owners couldn’t be held liable for injuries caused by a swarm of bees living on their land. As the court explained, “to require a landowner to abate all harm potentially posed to his neighbors by indigenous animals, plants or insects naturally located upon his property would impose an enormous and unwarranted burden.”
  • In Ryan v. New Mexico State Highway & Transportation Department, 125 N.M. 588 (N.M. App. 1998), the court explained that the state would “have had a duty to remedy the dangerous condition by placing warning signs along the roadway if [the state] had actual or constructive notice of wild animals crossing the road and causing driving accidents.”
  • Rippy v. Fogel, 108 Pa. Commw. 296 (1987), addressed an automobile’s collision with a deer that had wandered onto a state highway. The court found that the state had no duty to prevent the damages, despite numerous prior collisions in the area, explaining that “Short of fencing every inch on Commonwealth-owned highways in non-urban areas or permitting a wholesale obliteration of this Commonwealth’s deer population, we can conceive no method of correcting the problem of wild animals wandering onto the highways. As neither of these methods is feasible, the problem of wild animals on the highways is simply not ‘conceivably correctable[.]’”
  • Singleton v. Sherer, 377 S.C. 185 (2008), also involved injuries caused by a pet raccoon. The court concluded that the plaintiff was a licensee on the property, not an invitee, and so the property owner owed him no greater duty of care than the duty she owed to herself. She had no duty to warn him of the dangerous conditions posed by the raccoon because he was aware that the raccoon had already bitten someone else, making the dangerous obvious. The plaintiff’s assumption of risk, the court concluded, outweighed any negligence on the property owner’s part.
  • Nicholson v. Smith, 986 S.W.2d 54 (Tex. App. 1999), involved injuries caused by fire ant stings at an RV park. The court ruled against the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against the property owners, explaining that “The rule of law has developed that a landowner cannot be held liable for the acts of animals ferae naturae, that is, indigenous wild animals, occurring on his or her property unless the landowner has actually reduced the wild animals to possession or control, or introduced a non-indigenous animal into the area.” While the doctrine of ferae naturae may preclude strict premises liability, however, landowners can still be found negligent for injuries caused by wild animals under some circumstances. As the court explained, “A premises owner could be negligent with regard to wild animals found in artificial structures or places where they are not normally found; that is, stores, hotels, apartment houses, or billboards, if the landowner knows or should know of the unreasonable risk of harm posed by an animal on its premises, and cannot expect patrons to realize the danger or guard against it.”
  • In Gamble v. Peyton, 182 S.W.3d 1 (Tex. App. 2005), a horseback rider was injured when she fell from a horse that had been stung by fire ants. The court ruled that the landowner wasn’t liable for negligence, noting that under Texas law, a person can’t be held liable for personal injuries sustained during equine activities if the injury results from dangers or conditions that are an inherent risk of the activity. As the court explained, the presence of fire ants in an outdoor riding pen is one such inherent risk. The court also pointed out that “nothing about the pen made either the horse or the ants more dangerous” and concluded that the plaintiff couldn’t reasonably expect the outdoor structure to protect the horse from insects such as the fire ants.
  • In Pichelman v. Barfknecht, 1995 Wisc. App. LEXIS 994 (1995), a Wisconsin court held that the owners of a pet raccoon weren’t liable for injuries caused by the animal because it was a “wild animal,” and under the state Recreational Immunity Statute, any negligence on their part was irrelevant.
  • The Ninth Circuit concluded that the United States wasn’t liable for injuries caused by a bear attack in Yellowstone National Park in Martin v. U.S., 546 F.2d 1355 (9th Cir. 1976). 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.”
  • In Riley v. Champion Int’l Corp., 973 F. Supp. 634 (E.D.Tex. 1997), the court refused to grant summary judgment to a property owner who failed to warn a contractor about the presence of ticks on the property and the risks of Lyme disease.

2 responses to “Premises liability for injuries caused by wild animals

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