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Different states, different laws for cattle roadway accidents

Jamie Keyes Published on 24 August 2015
Open Range map

Cattle grazing beside the road are not an uncommon sight while cruising through the many rural areas of the U.S. Tourists find it a prime opportunity to take the cliché “cattle grazing on the horizon” photo.

But when those cattle wander across the road and are hit before making it to the other side, liability is sometimes a tough thing to determine.

Location is key to liability

The state of Oregon has two classifications of land when it comes to livestock grazing – open range and livestock districts. Rodger Huffman, the state brand inspection supervisor for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, often ends up explaining this concept to insurance companies after a car collides with a cow.

If Oregon cattle wander into a road and are struck in a livestock district, the rancher is liable because cattle have to be contained in adequate facilities and fences at all times.

According to Huffman, if cattle do escape and cause an accident, the rancher is held liable until proven differently – they did everything they could to prevent the accident.

“If the animals broke through adequate fences to get wherever they’re at, then the person who owns the animals can’t be held liable,” Huffman says.

On the other end of the spectrum, if an accident happens in an open-range area – cattle always have the right of way.

“The Oregon law has been challenged, but it never has been overturned to say that the car has priority in an open-range area,” Huffman says, “even though insurance companies don’t like necessarily paying for animals that are hit in open range.”

Neil and Jill Kayser run several hundred head of cattle on both open-range and stock-restricted areas (Oregon’s version of a livestock district) in south-central Washington. Neil Kayser grew up on the ranch and has seen around a dozen cattle hit by vehicles, so there is always that risk when grazing near highways.

“We prefer open range because then we are not responsible,” Jill Kayser says. “We’re still required to try and contain them, but if they do get out and get on to the roadway, we can’t be held responsible for that.”

On the other side of the country, similar regulations roughly apply. The Warren Act, passed in Florida in 1949, ended open-range grazing specifically to keep cattle off roadways in that state.

Now, unlike Western states, open-range grazing is a lost practice, and there is only one category of livestock land. But Florida law still protects ranchers by requiring that parties in accidents have proof of negligence by a livestock owner.

“If an animal gets out, breaks a fence down or breaks down a gate, there is really no liability attached to the owner of the animal,” says Florida cattle producer Don Quincey. “The animal did some things that you have no control of.”

Quincey has been in the cattle business for 35 years and runs nearly 15,000 head of cattle. “I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have open range,” Quincey says. “We’re fairly protected by the negligence law.”

Don’t forget to shut the gate

On public lands, it is difficult to monitor gates and fences at all times. Kayser Cattle Company has found that cattle guards help relieve some of that stress. Cattle have escaped one-too-many times through an open gate.

“No one has to stop and shut a cattle guard,” Neil Kayser says. “If they are maintained and put in right, they work really well.”

The public has access and is constantly traveling through the Kaysers’ summer pasture, located on Washington’s Mount Adams. That creates potential liability with the public opening the Kaysers’ gates.

“They might get out and open a gate, but they don’t want to get out again and shut it, so they don’t,” Jill Kayser says.

Left-open gates have led to roadway accidents; therefore, the Kaysers take it very seriously. According to Jill Kayser, they have specifically hired people to check gates on a daily basis.

They have also built specific spring-structured gates for outdoor recreational vehicles; it allows them to bump the gate open, and then it slams shut behind them.

“Whatever works for one area might not work for another,” Jill Kayser says. “But that’s kind of the key, just keeping a really close watch on your fences and your gates.”

Neil Kayser recalls that an open gate caused one of the worst accidents he’s ever seen. A black cow, which doesn’t reflect quite like a roadside sign does, stepped out onto the roadway during the dark of the night. The cow was instantly killed when a truck of four loggers collided with it on open range.

“They took responsibility for it,” Neil Kayser says. “They were in a hurry, and so they might’ve been driving faster than they should’ve and weren’t paying attention.”

Neil Kayser points out that the men didn’t get away unscathed. The truck was significantly damaged, and the men were badly bruised.

“It did a job on the cow and on the vehicle,” he says. “It’s just one of those things that happen; I am just glad no one was hurt.”

Unfortunately they weren’t able to find the culprit who left the gate open, or Neil says that individual could have been held liable.

Always be prepared

It doesn’t matter if a rancher has one cow or a thousand, Jill Kayser always includes animal collision coverage in their insurance plans. Besides working on the ranch, Jill also works as an insurance agent for Simcoe Insurance in Goldendale, Washington. She says it is not an automatic coverage under most plans, and ranchers need to request it.

“If something is hit and killed, and it’s not the driver’s fault because it’s in a stock-restricted area, the cattleman has to pay for it themselves,” she says. “The insurance company then will reimburse the rancher for the value of the cow.”

Kayser points out that with the additional animal collision coverage, a policyowner’s insurance will often cover the damage done to the individual’s car as well as compensating the rancher for the value of the cow.

Quincey says that it’s foolish not to have animal collision coverage. Even though Quincey Cattle Company has never had an accident fully pursued, Quincey is confident the coverage will take care of his operation.

“It pays for the defense of the lawsuit, and if we lose the case, it’ll pay for the damages done,” Quincey says. “Liability takes care of any accidents with cattle.”  end mark