Keeping a pet is the choice of people, but responsibilities follow in its wake – court, Newsline

Pretoria – As A dog lover, I recently acquired another mutt from an animal shelter, but at the same time invited a dog behaviourist into my life.

This is a new world to me, but understanding the importance of being a responsible pet owner, I realised I needed help as my new boy showed some behavioural problems.

While not aggressive towards humans, he hates all other dogs, apart from the two we already have.

So, armed with heaps of homework I am working on improving his behaviour, as one can never take chances.

This, especially so as I was recently once again reminded of the harm dogs can cause to humans. I am mindful of the KwaZulu-Natal toddler who is in a critical condition after being mauled by a pit bull.

So when the Supreme Court of Appeals judgment now came out that once again warned dog owners of their responsibilities, I was grateful for my decision to have called in professional help here on the home front.

The court in that judgment said: keeping a pet is the choice of people, but responsibilities follow in its wake. The reality is that animals can cause serious harm to people in various ways. Not to even speak about one’s pocket.

The case was sparked by a R2.4million damages claim by a refuse collector, Gerald Cloete, who lost his arm after three cross-breed pit bull terriers somehow came out of their yard and mauled him as he was walking past.

Cloete said he was minding his own business and did not provoke the dogs.

Owner Christiaan van Meyeren, who was not home at the time, said he had no idea how the dogs, said to be friendly pets who slept on his son’s bed, came out of the locked gate. He speculated that someone – perhaps a burglar – must have broken the padlocks.

Cloete claimed damages under the ancient Roman Law principle of actio de pauperie. Under this, strict liability follows the owner of an animal if the owner was aware that the animal could cause harm. Thus, the court said, if an owner was aware of their dog’s tendency to bite people, the owner would be liable if the dog bit someone.

Van Meyeren tried to escape liability by saying that he ensured that his dogs were kept under lock and that Cloete’s injuries were not his fault. Thus, he argued, he was an exception to the actio de pauperie principle.

The court said where the actions of the victim or third parties exonerate the animal owner from pauperien liability, it is because those actions directly cause the harmful incident and the owner could not prevent it.

That is why provocation of the animal by the victim or a third party exonerates the owner. The latter is also exonerated if a third party negligently fails to control an animal in their custody at the time.

According to the justices of the appeal court, responsibility for the dogs did not pass from Van Meyeren to the assumed intruder. They held that there was no proof that a third party was involved and the speculation did not exonerate the owner from his responsibilities.

In citing an appeal before the House of Lords, the appeal court justices said there was no need to follow a Sherlock Holmes approach to find out what actually caused the dogs to escape into the street. The test is what actually happened on a balance of probabilities.

Thus, unfortunately for Van Meyeren, he will have to fork out whatever of the R2.4m damages Cloete can prove that he suffered.

Thus, I shall soldier forward, armed with my treats, clicker and muzzle (for now) when I venture into the streets with my new shelter dog.

Pretoria News