Is the owner of a “guard sheep” named Lamby liable for injuries to a person allegedly headbutted by the sheep? Let’s take a look at Gonzalez v. Ahrens, a recent case from the Houston (14th) Court of Appeals.
Mr. Ahrens owns a farm near Yoakum, TX and has a number of species of livestock. He kept one sheep that he raised as a bottle lamb, named Lamby as his pet and “guard sheep” due to prior break ins. Lamby slept in the house and was friendly, but could be “territorial and protective when interacting with strangers.” Lamby had occasionally butted Ahrens and Ahrens’ girlfriend. Ahrens joked about this and showed Lamby’s butting to family and friends because it was amusing. (For you sheep people like me curious….the opinion does not indicate the age, size, or breed of Lamby. Disappointing, I know.)
In 2013, Ahrens had an appointment to be fitted for hearing aids. Two employees of the hearing aid company were scheduled to come to Ahrens’ house for the appointment, Cindy Castello and Anna Gonazalez. Mr. Ahrens told them to call before they came over because he had a “guard sheep” and he was not always at the farm, as he split his time between there and town. They complied with this request and when they arrived, Mr. Ahrens met them at the gate and had penned Lamby up with the other sheep for the visit. Castello and Gonzalez met and petted Lamby during this visit.
A second visit was needed for the hearing aids and, again, Ahrens told Castillo and Gonzalez to call before they came to the house because he might not be there and if he was not home they should not enter the property. He did not receive a call about a follow up appointment.
On August 29, 2013, Ahrens was in Houston when Castello and Gonzalez returned to his farm. They opened the gate and drove to the house. Lamby came to met them. While they were unloading items from the truck, Lamby butted Castello. The two made it to the porch and discovered Ahrens was not home. As they returned to their vehicle, Lamby chased Gonzalez. Gonzales claims Lamby butted her several times with enough force that she “went airborne” and “everything went black.” According to Castello, Lamby butted Gonzales one time, she hit the license plate a bit, her sunglasses and flip flops fell off and she scraped her foot.
Gonzalez got back into the vehicle and made the hour drive back to her office. According to a co-worker at the office, she was laughing about the encounter when she returned and did not appear to be in any distress.
The day after the incident, Gonzalez sought medical assistance and claimed she suffered a traumatic brain injury, underwent shoulder and back surgeries, and would require additional surgeries as a result of the incident. She did not inform Mr. Ahrens about the incident at the time it occurred or at the time she sought medical treatment. He had no knowledge that Lamby allegedly injured anyone when he was not there. In fact, the first he knew of anything happening was several months later when he received a letter from Ms. Gonzalez’ attorney.
Ms. Gonzalez filed negligence and strict liability claims against Mr. Ahrens. After a bench trial, the court found in favor of Mr. Ahrens on both counts. Ms. Gonzalez appealed the finding on the strict liability claim only.
With regard to a strict liability claim involving a domestic animal, a plaintiff must prove: (1) the defendant was the owner or possessor of the animal; (2) the animal had dangerous propensities abnormal to its class; (3) the defendant knew or had reason to know the animal had dangerous propensities; and (4) those dangerous propensities caused the plaintiff’s injury. Frequently, this type of analysis is used in cases involving dog bites.
Note that a strict liability claim does not consider whether the actions of the owner were reasonable under the circumstances; that would be the proper analysis for a negligence case. Strict liability, instead, imposes liability if the owner had certain knowledge, regardless of the reasonableness of his or her actions.
Court of Appeals Opinion
The Court of Appeals sided with Mr. Ahrens. [Read full opinion here.]
In this case, the court determined that it was the third element that was at issue–did Ahrens know or have reason to know that Lamby had dangerous propensities that were abnormal for sheep? The court determined he did not. Ahrens testified that he knew Lamby would butt people, that that all sheep will butt to a certain extent because it is their nature. He testified that Lamby had sometimes butted Ahrens and Ahrens’ girlfriend, but that it was not “viscous” or “the kind of aggression that a guard dog would have where they continually attack and they try and really put you down.” Lamby’s butting had never caused any injury, much less serious injury.
Thus, the court found “Ahrens did not have actual or constructive knowledge that Lamby had dangerous propensities to knock down and seriously injure an individual on Ahrens’ property when he was not there.” The trial court’s dismissal was affirmed.
Why We Care
First, this case is a good illustration of the analysis undertaken if a domestic animal injures someone. It is important to consider whether domestic animals have exhibited dangerous propensities abnormal to their class, as this could well be the basis of liability if they have done so.
Second, this case is also a good reminder of the importance of carrying liability insurance. A landowner or animal owner never knows when an injury can occur, and having liability insurance not only provides you coverage to pay for potential claims, but it also provides a defense. In this case, for example, it likely cost Ahrens significant attorney’s fees to go through trial and have the claims dismissed. If Mr. Ahrens had liability insurance that covered this incident, the insurance company would have provided a defense, including hiring and paying the attorney to represent Mr. Ahrens.
Third, I’m a sheep girl. I grew up on my family’s operation and am still actively involved in raising show lambs today. Any case involving a sheep is one I care about.