By Ashley Ellixson
It’s not uncommon to hear about livestock getting out of their pens in the middle of the night. This story frequently comes up in conversation with agriculture operators in Maryland. It even happened on my family’s dairy farm in Arizona growing up (those dairy cows were smart; they headed straight for the swimming pool in 100 degree heat!). As funny as these stories can be, sometimes they can cause tragic accidents. Motor vehicle and livestock (and even wild animal) accidents are a frequent occurrence in Maryland. As areas throughout the state continue to grow, more traffic is seen in Maryland’s rural areas. What does this mean for agriculture operators? You might be asking yourself: What happens if a vehicle hits my cow, horse, goat, or the like and someone is injured? Can they sue me?
In the state of Maryland, owners of livestock which have caused injury can be sued under a negligence standard. In order to prove negligence, the injured party must prove (1) the livestock owner owed a duty of care, (2) that duty of care was breached, (3) causation, and (4) damages occurred as a result. For example, Abigail’s herd of Holsteins in Frederick County escaped their pasture one September evening and ended up crossing a main road over to another field to graze. During the crossing, Daniel, who was driving home late from work, hit a Holstein standing in the middle of the road, damaging the front end of his vehicle. Here, Abigail had the obligation (1) to ensure her Holstein herd was not going to escape, and (2) to protect others, including Daniel, from the unreasonable risk of harm the cattle can cause drivers as they cross roads. Abigail breached that duty of care, the breach caused the cows to be in the middle of the road, and Daniel’s car was damaged. Each case will be decided on its individual facts, but it is likely in this example that Abigail would be held liable for Daniel’s damages.
It is also important to note that in Maryland, you cannot sue the landowner for compensation of damages if the liable party was leasing the land the animals were kept on. For example, Ed leased property from John to run his horses on. Ed’s horses frequently escaped the property and wandered the nearby roads for other pasture. If Daniel hit one of the horses, he could not sue John, the landowner, but he could sue Ed, the party who owes the duty of care to ensure his horses are kept fenced in and not wandering the roads where drivers would be in danger.
In some instances, an animal owner could be sued under a strict liability lawsuit. An animal owner may be held strictly liable for injuries caused by animals if the owner knew or should have known the animal had a propensity to commit the type of incident which caused the harm. For example, if you know your horses typically jump the fence or your buffalo attack a human (which typically applies to exotic animals), you must take steps to prevent their doing so. In other words, if you are going to keep buffalo or lions in your backyard in Maryland, it would be wise to make sure they do not escape since it will be far more difficult, if not impossible, to prove you are not strictly liable for damages caused by their escape.
As a side note, if you hit a deer or wild animal with your vehicle, you are responsible for your own damages since they are not under any personal ownership. Your car insurance policy should have some sort of coverage for these incidents; consider checking your policy to make sure you are covered. It would also be a good and prudent idea to speak with your insurance agent about coverage concerning escaping livestock animals and damages they may cause.