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Behrens v. Bertram Mills Circus, Ltd.

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Brief Fact Summary.

The Behrens couple (Plaintiffs) were injured when an elephant at the circus run by Bertram Mills Circus, Ltd. (Defendant) was scared by a dog and trampled on the Plaintiffs.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

One is strictly liable for any actions of an animal under one’s control that is not harmless by nature or domesticated.

Facts.

The Behrens couple (Plaintiffs) were circus performers. They licensed a booth at the circus of Bertram Mills Circus, Ltd. (Defendant). The booth was in the entrance walkway. Plaintiffs’ manager sat next to their booth with his dog, even though Defendant had rules prohibiting dogs. As the circus elephants entered the walkway, the dog began barking. The elephants were scared, turned towards the booth, and knocked it down. Plaintiffs were injured and the dog was killed. Plaintiffs sued Defendant for damage done by the elephants, claiming Defendant was strictly liable for their actions.

Issue.

Is a defendant strictly liable for the actions of animals within defendant’s care?

Held.

Yes, the Court held that a defendant is strictly liable for the actions of animals within its care.

Discussion.

The Court found that elephants have a tendency to do harm, ferae naturae, as they are not harmless by nature or domesticated (mansuetae naturae). It did not matter that these particular elephants were trained for the circus. The Court held, against Defendant’s arguments, that Defendant would be strictly liable for any actions of the elephants and not just those seen as vicious or savage. The actions in this case resulted from Defendant’s loss of control over the elephants, so Defendants are strictly liable. There would not be liability, however, for an injury arising from an accident, like the elephant slipping.


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