United States: Berserk Male Syndrome-Viable Claim For Negligence?

Last Updated: November 9 2015
Article by Nancy E. Halpern, DVM, Esq.

A ram that had been "raised on a bottle after [its] mother died" repeatedly charged and rammed a farmer, Mr. Jay H. Rhodes, who "suffered a concussion, five broken ribs and a broken sternum and shoulder . . . [and was] hospitalized for 16 days." 2015 WL 6689576, at *1 (Wash. App. Div. 3 Nov. 3, 2015). Mr. Rhodes sued the ram's owner, Rodney MacHugh under "a strict liability claim that asked the court to extend strict liability to the owners of all rams, not just known to be abnormally dangerous."

The court concluded

that existing Washington common law strikes the appropriate balance in imposing limited strict liability on the owners of domestic animals and otherwise imposing a duty of care commensurate with the character of their animals. Id.

The law that the appellate court considered in this case regarding strict liability

for harm caused by a domestic animal has been:

'The owner or keeper of a domestic animal not naturally inclined to commit mischief, while bound to exercise ordinary care to prevent injury being done by it to another is not liable for such injury of the animal be rightfully in the place when the mischief is done, unless it is affirmatively shown, not only that the animal was vicious, but that the owner or keeper had knowledge of the fact. When such scienter exists, the owner or keeper is accountable for all the injury such animal may do, without proof of any negligence or fault in the keeping, and regardless if his endeavors tis i keep the animal as to prevent the mischief.' Id., at *2.

In this case, Mr. MacHugh originally purchased the bottle-reared ram because he was '"real friendly. He'd come up to me several times when I was changing water, and I'd pet him."' Id.

It is well-known that certain bottle-raised animals (particularly llama and alpaca) will imprint on the humans who raise them. Some of these animals later demonstrate improper, aggressive and sometimes dangerous behavior to humans.

As described on Wild Oak Llamas website :

Often referred to as Berserk Male Syndrome, and more recently referred to as Aberrant Behavior Syndrome (ABS), this is aggressive, un-mannerly behavior, and possibly will lead to extremely dangerous behavior in llamas and alpacas. Symptoms seen in a young animal may be jumping or rearing up, pushing against you, pulling on your clothes, getting in your face, being overly friendly and following you around trying to be very close to you, orgleing, or flipping their tail up over their back and dropping into a U-neck position when around people. This type of behavior, although it seems very innocent and perhaps cute when the animal is very young, becomes extremely dangerous as the animal matures – especially as he develops into breeding age and becomes territorial. There are many, many stories of owners suddenly finding their animals wildly charging at them from behind or rearing up at them screaming, spitting, and biting. It may happen with no warning whatsoever.

I was reminded of this behavior by the description of the "attack" ram that Mr. MacHugh had purchased in the above-described case. I had observed berserk male syndrome in hand-raised llamas at Great Adventures, and similar aggressive behavior in a hand-raised, horned Holstein dairy cow who attacked and gored me when I approached a barn that housed a Belgian horse I was about to examine. It was not until she lowered her head to attack that I became alarmed. Fortunately I was able to escape into a tack room until the owner was able to contain her cow.

In the case of Berserk Male Syndrome, a plaintiff who suffered injury from an improperly raised animal may have a better chance to prevail with a claim of negligence (in the raising of the animal) than a claim of strict liability.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Authors
Nancy E. Halpern, DVM, Esq.
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