The Duties and Responsibilities of the Owners of Animals
If you own pets, livestock, or other animals you may be liable for any damage they commit. If you keep any animal, you have a duty of care to prevent them from causing harm. If you fail to do so, you can be exposed to civil liability with anyone who has been harmed being able to take action against you for any loss or injury. This is consistent with wider tort law with you as the owner being liable reflecting the fact that making an animal a defendant is not exactly a viable option.
Here there is an established duty (arising from your ownership). Breach means falling below the standard of a reasonable owner (perhaps letting your dog off its lead next to a main road). Causation means that but-for your negligence the claimant/their property would not have suffered harm. And damage means some kind of loss to the claimant (whether personal injury or property damage). If all of this is established, the claimant is entitled to compensation from you. Note that this applies uniformly to any and all animals you may own (although bear in mind that what counts as a “reasonable standard” is going to vary – putting a lead on a lion is not going to be good enough).
Liability can also arise under the Animals Act 1971 for “keepers” of animals. This means the owner, the head of the household if the owner is under 16, and a previous owner who has lost ownership or possession prior to there being a new keeper. So be aware that if your child lets something loose in the woods, it’s still your responsibility.
As far as liability under the act is concerned, there is an important distinction between “dangerous” and “non-dangerous” species. These are relatively precise categories. A dangerous species is one which “is not commonly domesticated in the British Isles” and “which, when fully grown, unless restrained, is either likely to cause severe damage or is such that any damage which it does cause is likely to be severe”. This is a wide category and would include most wild and exotic animals.
Non-dangerous species are those that are (unsurprisingly) not dangerous species. This includes not only dogs and cats but also (UK typical) livestock such as cattle and horses (although something like an ocelot or a buffalo is probably going to count as dangerous). It would also include weird but harmless pets (e.g. a snail).
The distinction between the two categories matters for liability. Liability for a non-dangerous animal only arises if the damage is of a kind which the particular animal, if unrestrained, is likely to cause. Alternately, if damage that could be caused if it is unrestrained is likely to be severe, this will be sufficient. Furthermore, for both sorts of damage, it is necessary to show that this likelihood is due to the characteristics of this particular animal that are atypical for its species or which are only common in the species at certain times or in certain circumstances. Consider, for instance, the risk of an unusually large and aggressive dog biting someone, or the risks associated with a dog with rabies. This is quite a high standard. If your (ordinary) cat scratches someone they are unlikely to have a good claim against you (even if they somehow suffered serious harm).
Conversely, keeping a dangerous animal means that you are strictly liable for any harm that it may have caused. It does not matter whether you were at fault. In fact, you can do everything within your power to prevent harm and still fail to discharge liability. Unlike with non-dangerous animals, any kind of harm is sufficient regardless of whether it is normally associated with the species. So, if your crocodile escapes from your property despite you having the best cage on the market and it subsequently kills someone by knocking over the ladder they were standing on, you will be liable despite the entirely unpredictable nature of this situation.
Under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, keepers of dangerous wild animals also have to take out insurance policies against liability for damage caused to third parties (it would be somewhat unfair if I couldn’t receive any compensation for having my leg bitten off by your pet wolf just because you had no assets). For obvious reasons you also require a license from the local authority.
Defences to claims under the 1971 Act are usual tort defences: contributory negligence, volenti, and trespass. Contributory negligence is where harm suffered was partly the claimant’s own fault. Think of someone prodding a bear in the eye and experiencing the predictable results. Volenti means voluntary assumption of risk. Note that this is not a defence against someone who takes on the risk as an ordinarily incidental part of their employment (you can’t dismiss a claim from a zoo keeper who has been bitten by a snake, for instance).
As for trespass, it depends on what the purpose of the animal was. If it was not kept to protect people or property from trespassers, then this is a defence (consider someone sneaking backstage at the circus and getting into the lions’ cage). Further your defence will succeed if it was reasonable to keep the animal to protect from trespassers. In other words, if a dog kept for the purpose of barking at trespassers to alert you to their presence bites a burglar, then you will have a defence. If, on the other hand, you “release the hounds” (who have been starved for a week and regularly beaten to hone their aggression) on a trespasser then you are likely to be liable for any harm.