A likely tort case has emerged from a bizarre accident outside of a San Francisco 49ers pre-season game. A police horse named Seattle was on patrol when he was spooked by a plastic bag and broke free. He collided with 78-year-old Eugene Caldwell, who fell and hit his head. He later died from the injury. It is a very tragic accident that may raise a difficult question of animal liability for the city.
Seattle was with another horse on patrol when the plastic bag got caught in its bridle around 6 p.m. After it tried to get rid of the bag by shaking its head, his rider leaned forward to try to grab the bag. Seattle, however, continued to violently shake its head, which hit the rider’s head with such force that both horse and rider fell to the ground. Seattle then jumped up and ran amok — hitting two men along the way.
Seattle is one of only ten horses in the San Francisco Mounted Unit — founded in 1874. Under tort law, strict liability applies only to wild animals or animals with known vicious dispositions (such as under the “one free bite rule.”). As a domesticated animal, Seattle’s accident would be addressed under a negligence standard. The question would be whether a rider should have dismounted before trying to dislodge the bag –a question left to expert testimony.
It is obviously a very tragic accident for the Caldwell family. Mr. Caldwell was a lifelong fan. The question for his family will be whether to seek damages under a negligence theory, given the strong defense that this was a freak accident.
The use of horses in standard police functions has long been treated as reasonable. Indeed, horses are treated as the equivalent to a law enforcement officer in cases like the recent one against Carl Coward, 24, for punching the rear end of a police horse on duty in Tampa, here.
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