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Do cats cause accidents?

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Many of us may be infected by a parasite which lives in cats but can be passed onto humans and could be responsible for accidents.

The parasite lives in the guts of cats but is often picked up by humans when, for example, they come into contact with soil while gardening which has been defecated on by a cat. The parasite can migrate to various human tissues, including the brain, causing a condition known as Toxoplasmosis. The condition is often fairly symptomless so it is possible to have it and not be aware. Some medical experts estimate that up to one third of the world’s population is infected with it. Therefore it’s likely that many of us have it, or regularly come into contact with people who do, but just don’t know.

One of the potential consequences of Toxoplasmosis though is a slowing of our responsiveness. This means that people with the infection may be more prone to accidents. There has been a study in the Czech Republic in 2002 and one in Mexico in 2013 looking at accident victims, which concluded that there may be an association between Toxoplasmosis and a higher risk of having an accident. The studies recommended further research into this area.

So what is the legal position? If someone crashes their car into you because they have Toxoplasmosis which has impaired their ability to drive, do you have a claim?

The start point in any road traffic accident (and indeed many other sorts of accident claims) is that the person claiming must show that the accident is the other party’s fault. This usually means proving that their driving was below a reasonable standard. If someone’s driving was below that standard and they caused the accident they may, on rare occasions, have a defence called automatism. This is usually raised when someone, for example, has an epileptic fit at the wheel. Clearly they are no longer in control of the vehicle, and if they hit someone else, can be said to have caused the accident. But they may not be held to be legally liable if the accident was caused by their health condition. However to succeed with that defence they would have to show that they had not caused the accident by starting to drive when they knew, or ought to have known, that they would be impaired.

So, again for example, if an epileptic had stopped taking their medication and knew that there was therefore a real risk that they would have a fit, but still got behind the wheel, then they would be negligent in doing so and the victim of any accident caused by that could claim compensation against them and their insurers.

This raises interesting issues in respect of Toxoplasmosis. If many of us have it, and don’t know it because the symptoms may not be easy to detect, but we drive a car or operate machinery and cause an accident as a result of reduced responsiveness, would we be liable to pay compensation to the accident victim? Maybe, maybe not.

On the one hand probably no one, including ourselves, would know that we had the condition so the accident may be put down to just simple negligence and failure to take proper care, the sort of thing that happens to uninfected people day in and day out in any event. If a court concluded it was as simple as that then anyone who had suffered injury or loss as a result of the accident we caused could claim. However if we could show that the accident was down to Toxoplasmosis and not just a ‘normal’ failure to take proper care than maybe we would have a defence against a claim on the basis of automatism. The problem with that is that if we knew we had the condition and it was likely to make us cause an accident, then we are liable anyway.

But more problematic is that, on the current state of medical knowledge, the link between the condition and the risk of accidents is not yet proven to a level that a court is likely to find acceptable. More research may change that but for now the defence of – ‘It wasn’t my fault M’lud, it’s down to to cat’ – isn’t likely to wash.

By Andrew Welch, Managing partner