We often discuss the strict liability rule governing wild animals in tort law. This morning Canada is dealing with a tragic and bizarre case in which two young boys — aged five and seven — were killed by a python that escaped a pet store and slithered through their ventilation system into their room. Reptile Ocean owner Jean-Claude Savoie lives above the store and was hosting the two boys for a sleepover with his own son who was unhurt.
Savoie found the boys dead in the morning. His own son was unharmed in an adjoining room. The snake is an African rock python and kills by constricting its victims.
It appears to have escaped it enclosure during the night and found the ventilation system. It then proceeded to strangle the boys to death.
In 2009, the province of New Brunswick relaxed rules to allow a wider variety of snakes, lizards and other exotic pets to be sold and kept.
Reptile Ocean’s Facebook page was shutdown after someone posted a statement criticizing people who were leaving angry messages and saying that commenters should “be ashamed of themselves” for blaming the store.
In the United States, the first issue would be the classification of the snake as either wild or domesticated. If considered wild (which I would presume), the store would be strictly liable.
If it were considered domesticated (perhaps due to a showing of animus revertendi or “habit of return”), the store would still be likely liable but would be subject to a negligence standard. The escape of the snake suggests obvious negligence. The question would be whether the use of the ventilation system was so unforeseeable as to cut off liability as a matter of proximate causation. I would think it was clearly foreseeable that a snake would slither to a cool dark surface like a ventilation system.
I can only imagine what these parents and the owner are experiencing this week in the grief that follows such a tragedy. The cause of death is truly nightmarish. The police are conducting a criminal investigation, presumably looking at a form of criminal negligence or manslaughter that does not require intent. There could also be charges based on the violation of public laws governing public safety or animal maintenance. Civil liability could also follow. None of this will of course bring anything close to solace for the parents, but many people want answers on how such a tragedy could occur.