Who's really at fault in sea lion attack

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Story highlights

  • A little girl in British Columbia was dragged off a pier by a sea lion before being rescued
  • It's a classic case of nature meets civilization, and no one is liable, Danny Cevallos writes

Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst and an attorney practicing in the areas of personal injury, wrongful conviction and criminal defense in New York, Pennsylvania and the US Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Video has emerged of a little girl being dragged off a pier and into the water Saturday by a sea lion in British Columbia. The girl's family reportedly had been feeding the sea lion and whistling or holding their hands over the water, as if they were holding a treat. The video shows the emboldened creature (of the family otariinae) emerge from the water, and in one swift movement, grab the girl's dress with its mouth and pull her under.

A man jumped in to rescue her, and she was quickly pulled onto the pier and led away. But make no mistake about it: She walked away not because she was saved. She is alive because she's not appetizing to sea lions. This easily could have turned into a (very preventable) tragedy.
    We just don't seem to learn.
    Wild animals are not our friends.
    Is anyone liable in this case? No. First, this happened in Canada. American and Canadian personal injury laws have procedural similarities, but Canada is considered a more conservative jurisdiction, less favorable to plaintiffs.
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    Second, there are no real injuries. Sure, the child was terrified, but "it was scary" is simply not a major driver of injury cases; things like shattered femurs or torn rotator cuffs are what drive damages. Third, a recurring theme in the law, dating back to the ancient Romans, offers this basic warning: Stay away from the wild animals -- they are unpredictable.
    Roman law divided animals into two groups, a distinction that persists today. The first is animals domitae naturae or mansuetae naturae -- that is, tame or tamed, domestic animals. Then there's animals ferae naturae -- wild, untamed animals.
    Through all of recorded history, sea lions have never been domesticated. Sure, they don't usually eat us, but they haven't exactly shown any interest in being friends with humans, either.
    Landowners in the United States and British Columbia, like the owners of a wharf surrounded by sea water, do not "possess" the indigenous sea lions that frolic around it. Wild animals are generally not predictable or controllable, and therefore, the landowner is not legally responsible for them when they wander close to humans and attack.
    There are exceptions to this rule, such as if the landowner has captured the wild animal or kept it chained in a pen on the property as an exhibit. What if the wharf owners knowingly throw out extra fish guts to attract the sea lions, which in turn attract the paying tourists? Legally, it's a closer call.
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    What's more, a fishing wharf likely spills plenty of fish guts by the pier as a byproduct of doing business. Whether the sea lions are welcome guests or a nuisance could depend on facts like whether warning signs were posted. There's no hard rule, but a plaintiff has to overcome the presumption that wild animals sometimes attack -- and no one is liable.
    In general, feeding or approaching wild animals is often flat-out illegal, too. Most laws are designed to prevent one person from harming another person or society as a whole. Other laws are designed to protect us from hurting ourselves (seat belt and helmet laws are examples). So are the many laws forbidding feeding or otherwise trying to befriend wild animals.
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    And yet, people remain obsessed with getting close to wild animals. It's illegal because it's not safe.
    My mom, for example, is one of those animal-loving hippies who wants to live in a meadow with the raccoons curled up next to her, the birds landing on her outstretched arms, like in Snow White. When deer wander through her backyard, she gets as close as she can to feed them. She doesn't seem to understand that the deer will never give her a hug in return for all those bread crumbs. What they might give her is Lyme disease or a minor goring.
    Society has made the message as clear as possible: Leave the wild animals alone. Some people -- like Mom -- still are not listening.