Liability For Animals Under The Nigerian Law

Humanity began to care for animals right from time immemorial. There is a general tendency among human beings to rear animals. However, there are occasions where these animals go wild and cause casualties out of the owners’ control. Many a person has at one time or the other witnessed animal attacks or has suffered injuries from animal attacks. This article will give a precise insight into the legal position on the liability of the owner or keeper of animals in Nigeria.

The subject of liability for animals dwells within the circle of the Nigerian law of torts. Notably, the Nigerian law of torts is not prominently contained in statutes, rather, it is a derivative of case law.[i] Thus, judicial precedents will be used to examine the position on the liability for animals under Nigerian law.   

The general rule is that a person keeps an animal at his own risk, and is liable for any injury or damage done by it. Liability for animals under the Nigerian law of torts can be seen in two lights, namely: scienter action and cattle trespass.

  1. SCIENTER ACTION

This classification deals with liability for dangerous animals. What are dangerous animals within the purview of Nigerian law? Dangerous animals are those animals that are inherently capable of causing harm or damage to a person (or the person’s property).[ii] The position of the law under this classification is that the liability of a keeper or owner will depend on the nature of the animal. In order to determine the nature of the animal, there are two sub-classifications of dangerous animals. These are:

  1. Animals Farae Naturae
  2. Animals Mansuetae Naturae

Animals farae naturae are animals that are by nature known to be dangerous. This category of animals includes lions, elephants, tigers, wolves, gorillas and other wild animals. These animals are naturally dangerous, but individual animals can be tamed by the owner or keeper. The position of law, under this category, is that the owner or keeper of these animals (animals farae naturae) will strictly be liable if such animals cause injury or attack another person.[iii]

Whether the animal has attacked a person before or not is immaterial before the eyes of the law. For instance, in the case of Behrens v. Bertram Mills[iv], the court held that the owner of the elephant was liable for the injury caused to the plaintiff as a result of the act of the elephant, even though the elephant was tamed. This is similar to the decision of the court in Searle v. Wallbank[v]

Animals mansuetae naturae are animals that are usually tamed but occasionally cause harm to persons. These animals are normally harmless but individual animals may harbour vicious propensities. Examples of these animals are dogs, horses, cats, cows and other domestic animals. The position of the law, with regard to this category, is that an owner or keeper may become liable for the acts of the animal if he has the knowledge of the dangerous acts or vicious propensity of such animals. That is, for a claimant to succeed in an action to claim damages for injury caused by this category of animals, he must prove that the animal in question had a vicious tendency and that the owner had the knowledge of it.

In Hudson v. Robert[vi], the defendant was held liable for the injury to the plaintiff’s which was caused by the defendant’s bull because the defendant was aware of the vicious tendency of the bull. In Wallace v Newton[vii], the plaintiff was employed to care for some horses. One of the horses was known to have a violent temper. The court held that the defendant was liable for the injury caused to the plaintiff’s arm by the horse. This is similar to the decision of the court in Worth v. Gilling[viii].

It is worth noting that the knowledge of the owner about the vicious tendency would be presumed if a person, whom the owner has given the custody or care of the animal, has such knowledge. In Daryani v. Njoku[ix], the defendant’s dog had previously attacked the housemaid, the knowledge of which was communicated to the defendant’s wife. The court held that the plaintiff was deemed to be aware of the vicious propensity of the dog and was liable.

However, it must be stated that where an animal in the above category merely acts according to its natural instinct, the courts, most often than not, do not hold the owner to be liable. In Buckle v. Holmes[x], the court did not hold the defendant liable for the plaintiff’s fourteen birds killed by the defendant’s cat. The ratio decidendi was that the cat had only acted on its natural instinct.

  • CATTLE TRESPASS

This category of liability is more relative in Nigeria, given the common nomadic cattle rearing among the Fulani tribe. However, under the law, ‘cattle’ is not restricted to only cows. Cattle, under the law, include cows, bulls, goats, pigs, horses, mules and even fowls. This category of liability arises where the defendant’s cattle are moved, driven or strayed and cause damage to the plaintiff’s land or property. The liability under this category is also strict. The owner of the cattle will be strictly liable for the acts or damages done by the cattle, whether he is negligent or not. The claimant under this action must show that he is the occupier of the land or that he has an interest in the land.[xi]     

OTHER AVAILABLE ACTIONS

Where a person who has suffered damage as a result of the act of an animal owned by another person is unable to bring an action under either of the above categories, the action for negligence may avail him. The owner or keeper of the animal can be held liable for the actions of the animal on the ground of negligence to tend and control the animal from causing damage to another person.[xii]

Also, a claimant may also seek redress under the tort of assault and battery. This is more applicable in situations where the owner sets the animal in motion to attack the claimant, or to apprehend fear by the claimant, or to steal from the claimant. In Manton v. Brockle Bank[xiii], the court held that the defendant was liable under trespass to chattel by training and setting his mare to steal from the plaintiff.

Also, an action under the tort of nuisance may also be available to a claimant. Where an owner or keeper brings a lot of animals unto his land in such a manner that causes annoyance and discomfort to other residents or neighbours, such persons may bring an action for nuisance. In Abiola v. Ijeoma[xiv], the defendant kept poultry with so large number of birds that the noise and smell from the poultry became an environmental disturbance and concern for the neighbours. The court held the defendant to be liable for the tort of nuisance.

It must be categorically stated that most of the general defences to tortious liability apply to liability for animals. Defences such as volenti non fit injuria (consent of the plaintiff), Act of God, act of a stranger, plaintiff’s default and contributory negligence may avail an owner or keeper of animal in order to avoid liability, depending on the circumstances of each case.

CONCLUSION

It can be observed from the foregoing that Nigerian cases on liability for animals are sparse. This may be due to the fact that there is a low level of legal knowledge or a high level of ignorance among the Nigerian general populace. Nonetheless, cases of cattle trespass are becoming rampant in Nigeria. It is recommended that lawmakers make laws to address this issue, and also laws that will regulate the use of dogs (especially security dogs) in Nigeria. In a nutshell, the liability of an owner or keeper of an animal will depend on the nature of the animal, or the circumstances of the case, as examined above.  


[i] E. Mara-Brown, Nigerian Law of Torts (Sweet & Maxwell, 1987) 7-13.

[ii] See section 6(2) of the Animal Act, 1971.

[iii] See May v Burdeth (1846) All ER 136 at 187

[iv] [1957] 2 QB 1.

[v] [1947] A. C. 341.

[vi] (1851) 6 Ex. 697.

[vii] (1982) 1 WLR 375.

[viii]  L. R. 2 C. P. (Eng.) 1, Cas. 136.

[ix] (1965) 2 All NLR 53.

[x] (1926) 8 K.B. 125.

[xi] See Manton v. Brockle Bank [1923] 1 K.B. 406.

[xii] See Draper v. Hodder [1972] 2 QB 556.

[xiii] Supra

[xiv] (1970) 2 All NLR 768

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