In the Dogbox: Liability of Animal Attacks

Jacques Peacock, Candidate Attorney

Vicious animal attacks have taken centerstage in the press and social media over the last few months. From pit bull maulings, to Sheba the tigress – South Africans are often oblivious about who will bear the brunt of our furry friends’ escapades.

Although no such thing as “animal law” exists within the South African legal framework, our law follows a two-prong approach to address liability in respect of animal attacks, namely criminal liability in terms of the Animal Matters Amendment Act 42 of 1993 (“the Act”), and civil delictual liability in terms of the actio de pauperie, where the owner of an animal can be held delictually liable for their animal’s conduct.

Behind bars for bark and bite

The Act provided that “any person as a result of whose negligence an animal causes injury to another person”, will be guilty of an offence and may face a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. Such animal may also be removed, taken into someone else’s custody, disposed of or destroyed and the owner may be found unfit to own a specific animal or a specific breed of animal for a specified time.

The Act does, however, not only apply to situations where the owner’s negligence or the third party’s mere injury is concerned. Owners may also be criminally liable for the death of a person due to an animal attack, and similarly if the owner’s deliberate actions incited the animal to attack.

Paying the pretty penny

The prejudiced (i.e., injured) person may also institute an action against the owner of the animal, by making use of the (albeit ancient) actio de pauperie. Originating from the Twelve Tables, this remedy has evolved in South African law and encompasses strict liability – fault on the part of the owner is not a requirement for liability (Neethling & Potgieter, 2015).

This remedy, however, has certain requirements that should be met in order to be successful, including that the Defendant (i.e., the person facing the claim) must be the owner of the animal at the time when the injury is caused; the animal must be a domestic animal (although this requirement should not be interpreted too strictly); the animal must, objectively, act contrary to its tame and / or domesticated nature, which would be reasonably expected from an animal of its kind; and the presence of the prejudiced party or its property must have been lawful at the time of the incident. (Neethling & Potgieter, 2015)

Do you think our laws in relation to the criminal and civil liability of animal attacks are too strict or too lenient? Or what are your views of the liability relating to Sheba, the tigress? Join us on Thursday, 16 February 2023 at 15h00, as we unpack the legal position further.

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