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Does Your Dog Bite? Your (Substantial) Risk Remains

“People are entitled to walk our streets without having to fear being attacked by dogs and, where such attacks occur, they should in most circumstances be able to look to the owner of the dog for recompense” (extract from judgment below)

Dog owners (in fact owners of any potentially dangerous domesticated animal) should take note of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA)’s recent refusal to extend the legal defences open to you if you are sued for injuries and losses caused by your animal.

Your risk is substantial – the dog owner in this case is being sued for R2.3m.
Three dogs savage a passer-by
  • An “itinerant gardener and refuse collector”, making his peaceful way down a suburban street and pulling the trolley in which he collects refuse, was attacked by three dogs for no reason, and without any warning.
  • The dogs savaged him to such an extent that neighbours who came to the scene thought he was dead. He survived, but his left arm was amputated as a result of his injuries. 
  • Sued for R2.341m in damages by the victim, the dog owner raised a variety of defences, but the important aspect for most of us is the SCA’s decision regarding his defence which boiled down to “the injuries weren’t my fault”.
Pauperian liability – liability without fault

Which brings us to the nub of your risk – you can be held liable on a “strict liability” or “no fault” basis. You can be sued even if you were in no way negligent.

That’s very different to most other types of liability for damages, where you are – with just a few exceptions – only at risk if you are proved to be at fault. As unfair as that may sound at first blush, there is solid reasoning behind it: “…the reality is that animals can cause harm to people and property in various ways. When they do so and the victim of their actions is innocent of fault for the harm they have caused, the interests of justice require that as between the owner and the injured party it is the owner who should be held liable for that harm.” 

That concept goes back millennia to pre-Roman laws, and our modern law continues to apply this no-fault principle in respect of domesticated animals as “pauperian liability” (“actio de pauperie” to lawyers).

This is a complicated area of law, involving much judicial interpretation of both old and modern laws, and professional advice specific to your case is essential. In a nutshell however you are liable “if the animal does damage from inward excitement or, as it is also called, from vice … its behaviour is not considered such as is usual with a well-behaved animal of the kind.”

SCA: The three defences open to you remain limited

The three limited defences that have always been available to you are –

  1. The victim “was in a place where they were not entitled to be” – for example  “a housebreaker bitten by a watch dog [or] where the animal was chained to restrain it and the injured party ventured within reach … However, in general, if the harm occurred in a public place, such as a public street, the owner would be liable.” 
  2. “The injured party or a third party provoked the attack by goading or provoking the animal.”
  3. Another person (perhaps a dog-sitter, dog walker or boarding kennel for example) had taken “custody or control” of the animal and failed through negligence to control it resulting in it injuring the victim. The claim then would be against the other person and not against you as owner. 

The dog owner here asked the Court to extend that third defence by taking away the “custody or control” requirement, so that negligence by another person not a custodian of the dog would still be a defence open to the owner. That would have given the owner a glimmer of hope with his speculative defence that that he had left the dogs behind a locked gate and “an unknown intruder must have attempted to gain access to the property via the gates and in doing so damaged the two padlocks … In turn this enabled the dogs to escape…”.

Bottom line (after much learned analysis of the law and constitutional considerations) – the Court declined to extend the third defence and your strict liability risk remains undiminished.

Control your dogs and check your insurance policies!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

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Friends and Lovers: Before You Lend Out Your Car…

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” (Shakespeare)

This is a case of a “love relationship” gone wrong but the principles of vehicle ownership apply to any situation in which you lend a motor vehicle to anyone else.

A widely-held misconception is that if you are the registered owner of a car, it is yours and you are the owner. Not so, as a recent High Court judgment aptly illustrates –

The registered owner unable to reclaim “her” car 
  • In what must at the time have seemed like a straightforward agreement between two people “in a love relationship”, a woman agreed to lend her lover a vehicle which she bought from a finance company under a loan agreement.
  • They had agreed verbally that he could use the vehicle for his personal use and would repay her for loan instalments, insurance, licencing, servicing, traffic fines and the like.
  • When the relationship soured, the woman asked the Court for an order returning the vehicle to her as owner. 
  • Although there was no dispute that she was indeed registered as owner of the vehicle, the Court dismissed her application on the basis that, whilst possession of a vehicle’s registration papers is prima facie (“at first view”) proof of ownership, it is never conclusive proof of ownership. Nor is any change of ownership required to be registered for transfer to take place. So in this case the registration papers did not prove ownership, the actual owner being the finance company.
  • This is different to the position with land, where registration of ownership in the Deeds Office proves ownership and is necessary for transfer of ownership. That no doubt is the origin of the myth that being registered as the owner of a car proves that you are the owner – an incorrect and dangerous assumption.
  • The woman was accordingly not the owner of the vehicle, rather the finance house was the owner in terms of the lease agreement which provided that it retained ownership until all amounts due under the agreement had been paid in full.
  • End result – the ex-lover keeps the car, for now at least.
Lessons for lending out cars…
  • Should you decide to lend out your car, make sure to do it under a written agreement – the parties in this case were lucky that they could agree on the terms of their verbal agreement as our law reports are replete with bitter and expensive litigation over what everyone said and who agreed to what verbally.
  • Include a term spelling out clearly your rights to recover possession of the vehicle. The woman in this case would have been in a far stronger position if the parties had agreed that, even if the man held up his end of the bargain to pay for all the loan instalments and other expenses, the woman still retained the right to reclaim the vehicle if their relationship ended (she still wouldn’t have sued as owner, just to enforce the agreement). 
  • For life partners and cohabiting couples this is yet another reminder that there is no such thing as a “common law marriage” in our law. There are no automatic marital or other rights attaching to your relationship and applicable when the relationship ends, so entering into a full cohabitation agreement is the only way to safeguard both your and your partner’s financial and personal rights.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

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Lockdown “Admission of Guilt” Fines – The Criminal Record Risk

Breaking any of our lockdown laws can be an expensive business, risking heavy penalties. 

If you are accused of a contravention and offered the option of paying an “admission of guilt” fine to avoid a court appearance, beware! It may seem like the easy way out to pay up and put the whole thing behind you but it could land you with a criminal record. 

You really don’t want to have a criminal record!

Having a criminal record comes with serious and lifelong negative consequences. Even an old and long-forgotten minor offence can hang around in the background until it suddenly pops up at the worst possible times – such as when you apply for a travel visa or a new job. 

When are you most at risk? 

The general rule is that you will acquire a criminal record if you are arrested, if the police open a docket and take fingerprints, and if you are thereafter convicted of a crime. 

The problem with admission of guilt fines is that they may well leave you with a “deemed” conviction and sentence which will end up in the CRC (SAPS Criminal Record Centre) database. Although there was talk in the past of the CRC capturing convictions with just your name and I.D. number the main risk seems to still be in having your fingerprints taken.

It’s not easy to get rid of a criminal record

And once you have a criminal record, it’s not easy to get rid of it.  

  1. Firstly, you can apply for “expungement” of the record to remove it from the CRC database, but that option is only available to you after 10 years and for certain “minor offences”. It will also take a long time to process – “20 – 28 weeks” per SAPS. Note that some specified minor convictions fall away automatically after 10 years – ask for specific advice.
  2. Secondly, you could ask a court to set aside your conviction and sentence – costly, not quick and not guaranteed to succeed.
  3. Thirdly, you could hope that planned amendments to our criminal procedure laws will retrospectively come to your aid – speculative and not yet in the pipeline.

The bottom line – if you are offered the option of paying an admission of guilt fine, ask for advice before you accept!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews