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When your cow takes on a car, what’s your liability?

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet Published on 25 May 2015
open range sign

It’s a call no cattle owner wants to receive – news that his or her cattle got out onto the roadway and were struck by a vehicle.

Not only is there concern for the driver and disappointment over losing the cow, oftentimes landowners face another question as well: Can liability be imposed for cattle getting onto the roadway? Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation for cattle owners across the country.

The answer to this question depends on the law in the cattle owner’s specific area as to whether a duty is imposed on livestock owners to contain their animals.

Most states take the opposite approach, imposing “fence-in” or “closed-range laws.” In these states, landowners generally do owe a duty to act reasonably and non-negligently in keeping livestock from escaping onto roadways.

In states with fence-in laws, legal liability will depend on whether the landowner breached his or her duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.

The mere fact a cow was present on the roadway is generally not enough, in itself, to impose liability. Instead, courts consider the factual circumstances surrounding the specific situation.

Factors courts will consider in these cases include whether cattle were frequently reported as being out on the road, whether fences were adequately maintained and whether the cattle owner had notice that the cattle were out on the road.

Other states, particularly those in the West, have “fence-out” or “open-range” laws, providing that landowners owe no duty to an injured plaintiff to keep animals from roaming free on roadways.

In areas that are “fence-out,” a livestock owner does not face liability for an accident because he or she did not owe a duty to the plaintiff.

Further complicating the issues is that there can be different laws in different portions of a state. For example, although Texas is considered a “fence-out” state, major exceptions change the rules in certain locations.

In Texas, all interstate and state highways are considered to be “fence-in.” Also, many local counties passed local stock laws that modify the general “fence-out” rules to make them “fence-in” areas.

Similarly, although Montana is considered a “fence-out” state, within all incorporated cities and towns are deemed to be “fence-in.” These examples are an important illustration of the need for cattle owners to ensure they understand the applicable law in their specific location.

In conclusion, the best advice for any cattle owner is to ensure that his or her cattle are kept safely to avoid an accident in the first place. Whether legally liable or not, no livestock owner wants to lose a cow or see another person injured.

Further, however, landowners should carefully analyze the law in their state in order to determine whether legal liability could be imposed.

If that is a possibility, livestock owners should consult with their attorney to ensure all steps are being taken to avoid liability in the event a collision does occur. Finally, ranchers should also confirm they have adequate liability insurance that will cover this type of situation.  end mark

PHOTO
Open range sign Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet
  • Tiffany Dowell Lashmet

  • Assistant Professor & Extension Specialist Agricultural Law
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
  • Email Tiffany Dowell Lashmet

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