Loose Livestock: Liability for Horses Running at Large
It was cloudy and rainy when Steve was driving his Ford Super Duty home from working a 16-hour shift. Steve dosed-off a few times during the drive and in an effort to keep himself awake, he momentarily took his eyes off the road to turn up the radio.
As he looks back up, he sees a horse standing in the middle of the road.
Unable to respond fast enough, Steve broadsides the horse. The impact causes Steve’s car to veer off the road over an embankment and the horse is killed on impact. Steve is severely injured and trapped in his truck, but another driver on the road that night called emergency responders who rescue Steve from the wreckage.
Steve was rushed to the hospital where he remained for 8 weeks recovering from his injuries. Shortly after returning home, Steve was shocked when he was served with a lawsuit from the owner of the horse he hit seeking over $50,000 in damages for the fair market value of the now-deceased animal.
Unbeknownst to Steve that night, when he passed by the local hunter/jumper stable an employee leaving the farm saw Steve swerve several times while driving the two mile stretch of road, so the employee began to follow Steve. Suspecting that Steve was intoxicated, the employee called the police to report the driving just before Steve collided with the horse.
The collision occurred in a state which follows an “open range rule”. These states allow livestock to wander freely so motorists in these areas truly drive at their own risk. In some instances, when the animal owner is able to establish the driver failed to exercise reasonable care while driving and was the cause of the accident, the animal owner is only free from liability for the crash, but sometimes is able to obtain a judgement against the negligent driver for the loss of their animal.
In stark contrast to “open range” states, some states’ laws provide that the owner or possessor of livestock is strictly liable for damages resulted from the animal’s trespass to private property. Meaning the horse owner or horse keeper could be automatically responsible for property damage, like damage to a car, and sometimes even for injuries to a person caused by a loose horse in the roadway. In stark contrast to “open range” states, some states’ laws provide that the owner or possessor of livestock is strictly liable for damages resulted from the animal’s trespass to private property. Meaning the horse owner or horse keeper could be automatically responsible for property damage, like damage to a car, and sometimes even for injuries to a person caused by a loose horse in the roadway.
Other states follow the “fence in” rule, where liability falls somewhere in the middle of the above spectrum. These states obligate an animal owner to keep their livestock reasonably confined and find liability, usually under a theory of negligence, when the animal escapes and causes harm or damage.
- Prior accidents or livestock previously running loose from the property;
- Poorly maintained fencing coupled with livestock previously running loose from the property;
- Evidence of a farm owner removing the barbwire from his fencing with the intention of later replacing it with electrified wire, but never doing so;
- Testimony from an “agricultural engineering expert” who opined that although the farm owner testified that he visually inspected his fence every week or two on his ATV and spending 1-12 hours doing so, the farm owner’s maintenance practices were “unreasonable and inadequate” because the expert believed it would be impossible to adequately inspect the entire fence on the 268 acres in that amount of time given the amount of trees, brush, and debris in the area;
- Testimony establishing the horses escaped through an open gate and the farm owner was admittedly the last one to check the gate;
- Testimony that a farm owner’s worker left a pasture gate open; and
- A farm owner having fence that failed to comply with fencing requirements established by statute.
Like most any legal issue, the topic of loose livestock is extremely nuanced, and outcomes vary significantly from state to state, and even within a state depending on local laws. As cities and suburbs expand, our horses and equestrian facilities become closer and closer to highly trafficked, populated, and urbanized areas. This increases the risk for personal and property injuries substantially. Depending on where the collision occurs, this significantly increases the risk of lawsuits for farm and horse owners.
If you are a farm owner concerned about your exposure to liability for loose livestock or are a horse owner or person that has been involved in a horse/vehicle collision, consider contacting us for a consultation.
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