How liable is an owner for damage caused by animals?

26 March 2024 ,  Jaimee Best 1052
One has often read about owners being held liable for a dog attack on a person, but what about an animal on the road which ends up causing an accident? Can the owner be held liable for the resulting damage?

To hold an owner liable for the actions of his domesticated animal, our South African law provides for a very specific action that can be instituted against an owner to claim compensation for damage or harm suffered as a result of the conduct of the owner’s domesticated animal, namely the actio de pauperie. The action implies a responsibility on the owners of a domesticated animal to exercise a duty of care and due diligence in controlling their animals, which includes taking reasonable steps to ensure that their animals do not escape or wander from their secured area or are a danger to others.

For such a claim to be successful, the following must be proven: 
  • The person you are claiming from must be the owner of the animal in question.
  • The damage or injury suffered was a direct result of the animal’s conduct.
  • The animal in question was domesticated.
  • Defence: The animal acted contra naturam sui generis, meaning contrary to the general nature of domesticated animals. It is important to note that if the animal caused harm because it is frightened, in pain or provoked then it has not acted contra naturam sui generis.
Attacks by pets such as dogs are the first to come to mind when considering damages caused by domesticated animals. 

The High Court of South Africa (Free State Division) in Ralikonyana v De Villiers and Another (4633/2021) [2024] ZAFSHC 3, recently delivered judgment on a matter in which a calf had escaped and wandered into the road, resulting in a collision with a motor vehicle driving on the N8. The court found that the defendant, as the owner of the calf, was expected to take precautionary steps to prevent his cattle from straying onto a public road. Although the kraal in which the calf was kept had been fenced, the court found that the fencing was not maintained in good condition resulting in the calf escaping. Accordingly, the court concluded that the owner of the calf was liable to pay damages suffered by the driver of the motor vehicle.

This judgment supports the view held by our courts that South Africans should be entitled to go about their business without fear of harm by domesticated animals, and where such harm occurs, whether, from a dog bite or a stray animal wandering into the road, there should be an entitlement to compensation. 

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