When a loose horse collides with a car or truck, legal battles can
follow. Here are a few:
* The one who owns the damaged car, or who was hurt in a collision with the horse, might seek compensation from anyone connected to the loose horse. If this happens, it could put the horse owner, the property owner, and the person responsible for keeping the horse are at risk of a lawsuit.
* The owner of the loose horse might consider a claim against the driver of the vehicle that struck the horse.
* The horse owner might consider a claim against the person(s) accused of causing the horse’s escape, such as the driver of the delivery truck that broke through the pasture fence before the horses escaped.
* Depending on the state law, the horse owner or keeper of the loose horse might even face criminal charges, such as fines, imprisonment, or both.
This article generally discusses liabilities involving loose livestock.
Loose Horse Laws
Across the country, states differ on the liabilities associated with loose horses. The laws generally fall into these categories:
In many states, a person injured from a loose horse must prove that the horse’s owner or keeper was “negligent” in causing the horse’s escape. Examples include:
* The horse escaped from a pasture with sub-standard fences or gates.
* The stable left a gate open or for had inadequate or defective gates from which the horse escaped.
* The horse had a history of jumping out of his pasture, and the stable knew this but failed to restrain the horse more effectively.
Open Range Districts
A small number of states, or regions within states, have “open range laws” or “open range districts.” Similarly, some states have designated “grazing areas” or “grazing districts.” Motorists in these areas truly “drive at their own risk” because livestock can wander freely without fences to contain them. By law, motorists entering these areas are typically cautioned with warning signs, and if a horse/car collision occurs, the motorist has little or no recourse against the horse owner or keeper.
“Strict Liability” Laws
A few states have “strict liability” laws. These laws could make the horse owner or keeper automatically responsible for property damages (such as automobile or trailer damage from a collision with loose livestock) and sometimes even for personal injuries caused by a loose horse that enters the roadway.
In some states, owners or keepers of loose livestock could face criminal penalties, such as fines and/or imprisonment. In a 1994 California case, for example, a stable faced criminal charges of manslaughter after a horse escaped and killed a motorist. There, evidence proved that the pasture was in dilapidated condition and that horses had escaped many times before.
Depending on the facts and law, owners of loose livestock have a few possible defenses. Here are a few of them:
* The animals were properly restrained and the owner or keeper was not negligent.
* The animal owner or keeper played no role in its escape because someone else, such as a vandal or a driver who broke the fence, damaged or tampered with the fence and caused the animals to escape.
* The party that was sued, such as a horse owner, had no control over the manner in which the horse was restrained.
Claims of the Horse Owner
Sometimes, if a motorist kills or injures a loose horse, the horse’s owner could have a claim against the driver for compensation. In a case from Nebraska, a horse escaped from its pasture and was killed by cars on a highway. Yet, the horse owner successfully fought back. He sued the driver of one vehicle whose car had broken through the pasture fence and allowed the horse to escape. He also sued the driver of another vehicle because evidence showed he was speeding.
Here are some ideas for avoiding liability:
* Make sure your fencing complies with state or local laws. Injured motorists, in an attempt to prove that an animal keeper was negligent in allowing its escape, often claim that the fencing was defective and violated state or local fencing laws.
* Fence inspections. Injured motorists will scrutinize the attention the fences receive and how often they are checked or repaired. Livestock facilities that regularly check and repair their pasture fences, gates, and stall latches will withstand these challenges.
* Liability Insurance. Liability insurance policies cannot prevent escaping livestock, but you can purchase proper coverage to protect you in case a claim or suit arises. For example, horse owners who board elsewhere can consider Personal Horse Owner’s Liability Insurance Coverage. Boarding stable owners can look into policies such as Commercial General Liability Insurance. Back yard livestock owners can make sure their Homeowner’s Liability Insurance Policies protect them from claims involving loose livestock.
This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable attorney.
About the Author
Julie Fershtman has been a lawyer for over 24 years (as of December 2010) and represents insurers and businesses nationwide on a wide variety of liability and coverage issues. She is a Shareholder with the Michigan law firm of Foster Swift Collins & Smith, PC. For more information, visit www.fershtmanlaw.com and www.fosterswift.com.