THE SCIENTER RULE
Author : Bhoomi Gupta
It is a primary duty of an individual who possesses animals either ferae naturae (usually wild animals) and mansuetae naturae (usually domestic animals) to protect other people from any harm that can be incurred due to these animals. When any dangerous or non-dangerous animals causes harm then the person keeping will be liable under numerous torts, such as negligence, nuisance and trespass, where the animal in question causes damage.
The scienter principle is explained by Williams in the following words:
“The general principle in present-day English law is that, apart from cases in cattle-trespass and the ordinary torts of the nuisance, negligence, and so on, liability for damage caused by one’s animal depends on previous knowledge of its vicious nature. Such knowledge had originally to be proved in all cases, but in modern law, it is presumed if the animal in question is one of a dangerous class. The principle is known as the scienter principle (from the words scienter retinue in the old form of the writ), and proof of knowledge is called, somewhat grammatically, proof of scienter.”
In the case of wild animals, the owner is assumed to be strictly liable for the damage caused by the wild animal. In such circumstance injured plaintiff need not prove the negligence. Conversely, to prove liability and recover for injuries caused by a domestic animal, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant knows the vicious propensity of the animal to cause any kind injury or damage. Moreover, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant knew of this propensity. In other words, the defendant is shall be accountable for injuries caused by domestic animals when he is aware of the vicious propensity, however, in the case of wild animals the knowledge of a vicious propensity is irrefutably presumed. The scienter action, therefore, extends not only to damage caused by domestic animals known to be vicious but also to wild animals presumed to be vicious.
The case of Quinn v Quinn, 39 ILTR 163 the plaintiff’s cow and the defendant’s sows separated with a timber partition. The sows broke out of their partition and injured the plaintiff’s two cows which died due to injuries. The court held that the defendant was liable for the loss of cows. It was established and also finds that the sows had previously killed cocks and hens and this fact was within the knowledge of the defendant and the plaintiff has many times asked the defendant to strengthen the partition.
In the matter of May v. Burdett,  9 QB 101 the defendant was the owner of a monkey which bit the plaintiff. The court held that defendant was liable for keeping a monkey on the ground that the monkey is a dangerous animal.
In the matter of Rukomberwa Yokana v. Nkwayanasi (2016) the appellant’s fourteen goats killed by the respondent’s dog. Hence suit was filed by the appellant for compensation against the respondent. The court observed that the respondent knows the tendency of the dog to injure other animals. The court held that the respondent was liable and the appellant was awarded special damages as well as general damages.
In Read v. Edwards,  1 SCR 128 the defendant’s dog killed and chased away the certain pheasants which belonged to the plaintiff. The defendant was held liable for his dog’s act of trespassing, chasing and killing pheasants on the ground then the defendant knew of its dog propensity to violence.
In the matter of Charles Decker v. James M. Gammon, 44 Me. 322 (1857) the defendant’s horse escaped from the defendant’s enclosure entered into the plaintiff land and severely injured the plaintiff’s horse by kicking, biting, or striking with his forefeet, or in some other way, as a result, plaintiff’s horse died in a few days. The court held the defendant liable for the actions of his horse.
In the case of Jividen v. Law 461 S.E.2d 451 (W. Va. 1995) the defendant’s dog bit the plaintiff. However the defendant’s dog has never displayed dangerous propensities, therefore, the defendant was not held liable for the injuries.
In the matter of Anderson v. Anderson, 41 S.D. 32, 168 N.W. 852 (1918) the defendant is the owner a bull of dangerous propensity. One of the defendant’s employees who had worked around the bull was killed by the bull. The employees were aware of the vicious tendencies of the bull. The Court observed that:
“. . . a person keeping a bull or other animal is known to be of vicious tendencies is liable for such injuries as may be caused by such animal, regardless of the degree of care exercised by such owner in restraining and controlling such animal or the precautions taken by the owner of such animal to prevent it’s doing injury. . . But this rule is subject to the following qualifications: If the injured party is guilty of negligence that contributed directly to the injury, such negligence would be a defence to the action.”
In the above case, it was directly proved that the defendant was liable.
In the case of Theyer v. Purnell (1882), 10 Q. B. D. 17 the defendant’s sheep was infected with the scab, and it trespassed on to the plaintiff’s land. The defendant’s sheep conveyed the scab to the plaintiff’s sheep. All the plaintiff’s sheeps were caged under a government order and the plaintiff was put to a considerable expense. The defendant was held liable irrespective of his knowledge.
In Heidemann v. Wheaton, 72 S.D. 375, 34 N.W.2d 492 (1948), the defendants were the owner two black bear cubs and defendant keep them in a cage whose material was sufficient to restrain them. The defendants never display cubs publicly or advertise about them or otherwise invite the public unto their land to view the bears. However, the plaintiff who went to see bear stood too close to the cage. The plaintiff was injured with the claws of the cub when it was trying to reach her. The Court held that the cause of the plaintiff’s injury was her failure to exercise ordinary care, and therefore the defendants could not be held liable.
When the plaintiff suffers an injury by the defendant’s wild animals then the defendant is strictly liable even for harm damaged caused by the animals’ usual dangerous propensities. In such case it is not necessary that the defendant is aware about the dangerous propensities of his animal before the plaintiff is harmed. In Cowden v. Bear Country Inc. 382 F. Supp. 1321 (D.S.D. 1974 it was observed that the defendant shall be held strictly liable for the harm caused by wild animals irrespective of the fact that the injury is caused from normal or abnormal dangerous propensities and regardless of whether the defendant knew of those dangerous propensities before the injury.
- Liability in tort for animals, Ajit Yadhav, https://www.scribd.com/doc/51143471/Liability-in-Tort-for-Animals (Last visited on August 22, 2020)
- Distress Damage Feasant- Animal Rights and Tort Law, Janhavi Arakeri, https://blog.ipleaders.in/distress-damage-feasant-animal-rights-tort-law/ (Last visited on August 22, 2020)
- Civil liability for animal, https://www.lawreform.ie/_fileupload/consultation%20papers/wpAnimals.htm (Last visited on August 22, 2020)
- Quinn v Quinn, 39 ILTR 163
- May v. Burdett  9 QB 101
- Rukomberwa Yokana v. Nkwayanasi (2016)
- Read v. Edwards,  1 SCR 128
- Charles Decker v. James M. Gammon, 44 Me. 322 (1857)
- Jividen v. Law 461 S.E.2d 451 (W. Va. 1995)
- Anderson v. Anderson, 41 S.D. 32, 168 N.W. 852 (1918)
- Theyer v. Purnell (1882), 10 Q. B. D. 17
- Heidemann v. Wheaton, 72 S.D. 375, 34 N.W.2d 492 (1948),
- Cowden v. Bear Country, Inc. 382 F. Supp. 1321 (D.S.D. 1974