Wild Animal Attacks Patrons at City Zoo...



Personal Injury Case Study

The following case example examines personal injury liability when a wild animal attacks patrons at a new "open air" zoo. We review several legal issues including the attack, liability, damages, negotiations, and the final case resolution.

The Attack...

Alex and Peggy went to the grand opening of the new city zoo. It was advertised that the zoo was "open air" meaning that the enclosures for the wild animals were minimal. Alex and Peggy visited numerous attractions before stopping at the leopard exhibit where they got a chance to observe the zoo handlers feeding them.

The female leopard had just given birth and was very agitated by the handler's presence, however they persisted to bate her into "performing" and entertaining for the audience.

Before anyone knew it, the female leopard jumped the minimal enclosure and began chasing patrons in the vicinity. Alex tried to escape but tripped over his own feet falling to the ground at which time Peggy lost sight of him.

While on the ground Alex was trampled by others also trying to flee the dangerous wild animal attack. Within minutes, the park rangers managed to capture the leopard but not before she had bitten one patron on the ankle (Mark) and Alex had been trampled on the ground.

Liability...

Liability in this case was twofold: On the one hand, the park was held strictly liable for the dangerous propensities of a wild animal. Unlike domesticated animals like dogs and cats, owners of wild animals are held strictly liable for injuries that are occasioned by these animals.

In addition, the zoo was negligent by failing to properly secure the wild animal when they allowed open air, minimal fencing.

Secondly, the employees continued to bate the animal even after knowing that she was agitated. This probably exacerbated an already tenuous situation with the animal. "But for" the employee's harassment, it is unclear whether she would have escaped (but it was definitely a factor). In this case, the zoo was held vicariously liable for the tortious acts of their employees.

Injuries...

Mark was bitten by the leopard and was taken immediately by zoo security to the first aid department where he was then transported to the local emergency room. He sustained one severe bite which required 15 stitches.

Alex was trampled when over 100 park goers tried to escape from the leopard. Though he was not bitten, he sustained internal bleeding as a result of being stepped on numerous times. He too was transported to the emergency room where he was admitted for surgery to stop the bleeding.

He stayed in the hospital for two weeks, during which time he suffered complications necessitating one additional surgery. Peggy was not injured.

Negotiations...

Mark's medical bills were $2,800. He submitted a claim to the zoo's insurance carrier for $35,000. Typically personal injury cases settle for 2-5 times the medical bills unless there is some extenuating circumstance. Here, not only was the experience of a wild animal attack terrifying, Mark also had a scar. Therefore Mark's lawyer felt comfortable demanding more than 12 times his medical bills.

Alex had one surgery which cost $18,000 and a second which was $15,000. His hospital stay was $2,000 per day for two weeks or $28,000. He demanded $150,000 in his first demand letter.

Final Settlement...

Due to the gravity of the situation, the insurance company did not put up a huge fight. In Mark's case, the zoo settled for $35,000 and they requested that the settlement remain confidential. Mark's attorney took 33% and Mark's medical insurance required him to reimburse them for the $2,800 that was paid on his account. Mark's final settlement was $20,650.

The insurance company questioned whether the zoo was liable for Alex's injury at first, but quickly realized the strict liability element to this case. They counter-offered at $125,000 and settled at $130,000. Alex did not hire an attorney and his medical bills were covered by his insurance. They sought only $5,000 in reimbursement, therefore Alex's settlement was $125,000.

Important Points...

  • Carriers of wild animals are held to a strict liability standard. This is much higher than the standard of liability for domesticated animals in most states.

  • Not all medical insurance companies will require reimbursement.

  • Employers can be held liable for the tortious acts of their employees that occur within the scope of employment.

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