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When Animals Attack: Indiana Law & Wild Animal Liability

     Over the last few weeks, the media coverage of wild animal attacks have been quite 
extensive.  Harambe, a 17-year-old male western low land gorilla, was killed by the Cincinnati Zoo in an effort to save the life of a four-year old child who ventured into the gorilla’s cage.  A few weeks later, Walt Disney Co. was placed under severe scrutiny following an alligator attack at its Orlando resort that left a two-year old child dead.  The families involved in these unfortunate situations could sue the zoo and Walt Disney Co. for compensatory and emotional distress damages that arose out of the unexpected wild animal encounter.       

     In Indiana, the Cincinnati Zoo and Walt Disney Co. would be held strictly liable for the 
harm caused by wild animals on their property.  In Indiana, strict liability is the law in wild animal cases.  In the case Irvine v. Rare Feline Breeding Center, Inc., an owner of a 50 acre farm converted the location to an exotic animal display.  The owner maintained zebras, llamas, camels, kangaroos and Siberian tigers.  One night, a visitor of the farm decided to see the tigers.
     The visitor 
approached the wire caging, placed a couple fingers inside the enclosure, and attempted to pet a male tiger. As he was scratching the male tiger, a female tiger made some commotion, which caused the visitor to look away from the male tiger. At that moment, the male tiger pulled the visitor’s arm through the two inch by six inch opening of the wire fence.  The visitor underwent six surgeries during a thirteen day hospital stay.   The visitor filed a complaint against the farm claiming negligence, strict liability, nuisance, and punitive damages.  As a matter of first impression, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the possessor of a wild animal is generally subject to strict liability for harm done by the animal; however, whether the injured party incurred the risk of his or her injuries, as well as other defenses, may apply.  The Court found that strict liability is appropriately placed:

Upon those who, even with proper care, expose the community to the risk of avery dangerous thing.... The kind of dangerous animal that will subject the keeper to strict liability... must pose some kind of an abnormal risk to the particular community where the animal is kept; hence, the keeper is engaged in an activity that subjects those in the vicinity, including those who come on to his property, to an abnormal risk ... The possessor of a wild animal is strictly liable for physical harm done to the person of another ... if that harm results from a dangerous propensity that is characteristic of wild animals of that class.Thus, strict liability has been imposed on keepers of lions and tigers, bears, elephants, wolves, monkeys, and other similar animals. No member of such aspecies, however domesticated, can ever be regarded as safe, and liability does not rest upon any experience with the particular animal.

     The Court also noted that the visitor’s contributory negligence in subjecting himself to the dangers of a wild animal is a defense to a strict liability claim.  The Court also found that the visitor’s status as an invitee, licensee or trespasser was important to determine the liability of the farm.  The Court discussed evidence that the visitor did not have permission to enter the area where the tiger was located.  The Court also found that evidence demonstrating whether the visitor was intoxicated was important in analyzing the farm owner’s defense to the strict liability claim.

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