HARTFORD, Conn. After a horse named Scuppy bit a boy in the face, a Connecticut court came to a conclusion that threw animal lovers: Horses are a naturally vicious species.
Horse owners and farmers are mobilizing as the state Supreme Court hears an appeal in the case Tuesday. Such a classification - the nation's first, if it stands - would make owning horses uninsurable and jeopardize the state's sizable horse industry, farmers and horse owners say.
"You could not pair children and horses, the core equestrian business nationwide that it's all about," said Doug Dubitsky, a lawyer who represents farmers and horse businesses.
When the boy tried to pet the horse at Glendale Farms in Milford in 2006, according to court papers, the animal stuck his neck out from behind a fence and bit the child on his right cheek, "removing a large chunk of it."
In February 2012, the mid-level Appellate Court overturned a lower court ruling and said that testimony by Timothy Astriab, whose family owns the farm, demonstrated that Scuppy belongs to "a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious."
Although he had no knowledge of Scuppy biting anyone before, Astriab testified that Scuppy was no different than other horses that would bite if a finger was put in front of him. "Significantly, Astriab acknowledged his concern that if someone made contact with Scuppy, whether to pet or feed him, they could get bit," the justices said.
The injury suffered by the boy was foreseeable and the owners of the farm had a duty to use reasonable care to restrain the animal to prevent injury, the Appellate Court ruled.
Astriab did not return a call on Monday seeking comment.
If allowed to stand, Connecticut would be the first state to consider horses as inherently dangerous, said Dubitsky.
Horse farmers and equine enthusiasts, who cite 2005 statistics saying that the horse industry contributes about $221 million a year to the state's economy in boarding, training, lessons and breeding businesses, are asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the Appellate Court's decision. The Connecticut Farm Bureau and Connecticut Horse Council filed a friend of the court brief saying that under common law viciousness generally is judged individually according to age, breed and gender, not as an entire species.
Fred Mastele, acting president of the state's horse council, said it is encouraging horse owners to attend the hearing Tuesday and support the Astriab family.
"In our opinion, horses are not vicious animals," he said. "They are certainly not attack animals."
Astriab had won at a lower court in 2010, when a New Haven judge sided with the horse's owner and ruled that the child's father, Anthony Vendrella Sr., failed to prove the owner knew of previous incidents of aggression by Scuppy.
The Superior Court judge said Astriab testified that neither he nor anyone else had ever seen Scuppy bite a person before and that in 28 years, none of the horses at the farm bit or injured anyone.
"Cats have a tendency to scratch and horses have a tendency to bite, but the plaintiffs have failed to show, as they must, that the defendants were on notice that Scuppy specifically, and not horses generally, had a tendency to bite people or other horses," Judge Robin Wilson ruled.