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In recent years I have seen an increase in accidents involving horses and cattle that escape pastures, pens or other enclosures and wander onto a highway causing serious accidents. All who own horses have experienced the sickening feeling of knowing your livestock is "on the loose." If a horse escapes and wanders onto the highway causing a serious accident (and it seems to always happen at night) are you, the owner, automatically liable for any injury or damages, even if you make certain the gate was closed and the fence was in good repair?
Before answering this question we must understand the difference between strict liability and negligence. Strict liability is absolute liability and does not require proof of carelessness, neglect or fault. Black's Law Dictionary defines strict liability as not depending on actual negligence or intent to harm, but is based on the breach of an absolute duty to make something safe. Negligence, on the other hand, does not impose absolute liability and only establishes liability if you were careless or neglectful.
The concept of strict liability is most associated with manufacturers of products. If you purchase a product, such as a lawn mower, and you use it as intended, and become injured, the injured party must only prove that the product was used as intended and caused harm. The injured party does not have to prove negligence or carelessness on the part of the manufacturer.
However, the law of strict liability also has application for damages caused by animals. The application has been limited in that the law distinguishes between domesticated animals and wild animals. Domesticated animals are dogs, cats, horses, cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, etc. Wild animals are lions, tigers, venomous snakes, gorillas and the like.
A general statement of the law is that strict liability, that is fault without regard to wrong doing, is imposed on the owner of wild animals. Negligence, which requires proof of carelessness or wrong doing, has historically been applicable to domesticated animals (There are exceptions to all of these rules: For example, a domesticated animal that has previously shown signs of dangerous propensities, may be held to the strict liability standard, however, for purposes of our discussion, we will not discuss the exceptions).
Simply stated, if you own a lion, and it gets away, you are absolutely responsible for any and all damage it may cause. However, as the law currently stands, if your horse gets away, you are only responsible if the injured party can prove neglect or carelessness on your part. For example, if you left the pasture gate unlatched or if the fence was in a state of disrepair to the point that an animal could easily escape, you are responsible.
As you can see there is a great difference between strict liability and negligence. If you are a horse owner, you, of course, want the negligence standard to apply which would clear the owner of any responsibility in the absence of neglect or carelessness. This is the law in most states.
There has been an attempt in recent years to change the law as it pertains to domesticated animals from the negligent standard to the strict liability standard. Such an attempt was recently made in the case of Lefebvre v. Bielak, PICS No. 13-1355, 2013, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. The Plaintiffs in Lefebvre were driving their car down the highway when a cow began to cross the road.
Lefebvre struck the cow causing property damage to the car and serious injury to his wife. Lefebvre then sued Bielak, the owner of the cow and alleged strict or absolute liability on behalf of Bielak.
Bielak countersued Lefebvre claiming strict liability was not applicable and that Lefebvre was speeding and did not have his car under control. Thus, the battle lines were drawn. Lefebvre argued strict liability or absolute liability regardless of fault against Bielak. Bielak denied strict liability and claimed Lefebvre was negligent for driving too fast and not having his car under control. The Court was faced with a decision on whether or not strict liability or negligence applied to the case. Obviously, the Court's opinion could have a dramatic impact on the law in regard to domesticated animals which escape their enclosures.
The case presented an issue of first impression in Pennsylvania, that being the imposition of strict liability on the owner of livestock for injuries arising out of an automobile-livestock collision.
The Judge ruled that in an automobile-livestock collision, liability will result only where the owner lacked due care in failing to confine the animal.
The Judge, in ruling that strict liability does not apply, analyzed other Pennsylvania cases, many of which were rendered when most Americans did not own cars. The leading case on the law denying strict liability is the case of Tassoni v. LeBoutillier, 130 Pa. Super. 303, 196A 543 (1938). In Tassoni, an unattended horse dashed onto the highway shortly after midnight and collided with an automobile driven by the injured party. The Plaintiff alleged that the horse owner negligently failed to keep his horse properly confined and off the highway. The Court in Tassoni held that the horse owner would not be held responsible for injuries caused by the horse unless the horse owner was guilty of negligence in the manner of controlling or not controlling the horse.
In Tassoni the horse owner was found negligent in not controlling the horse properly, but negligence had to be proved and was not absolute.
The Court went on to cite Sections 518 of the Restatement of Torts which defines liability for harm done by a domestic animal that is not abnormally dangerous. Under the Restatement of Torts, the owner is subject to liability for harm done by the animal but only if, (1) the owner intentionally causes the animal to do the harm; or (2) the owner is negligent in failing to prevent the harm. Thus, it is clear, that the standard is that of negligence and not strict liability.
In a later case, Bender v. Welsh, 344 Pa. 392, 25A2d 182 (1942), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the negligence standard in a situation where a horse suddenly emerged from a shadow and was struck by an automobile at 11:00 p.m. The horse, which was kept in a pasture adjacent to the road, had escaped after pushing out a portion of the fence.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court viewed the facts in a more modern fashion and held that a jury, under certain facts, could infer negligence if the owner does not show to the jury's satisfaction that a horse was properly confined. The Supreme Court stated, "Horses which are properly confined ordinarily do not escape. Hence the presence of an unattended horse on the highway is sufficient evidence to allow the jury to infer negligence on the part of those whose duty it was to restrain him … In these days of rapid automobile transportation, the extreme hazard to drivers and passengers of animals straying unattended on the road at night cannot be over estimated. The driver is placed in a well-nigh helpless position because of the tendency of an animal to spring out of the darkness in front of a car when blinded or hypnotized by its headlights. Against this contingency, drivers should be protected, by having our roads clear of such obstructions, and every owner of livestock should make an earnest endeavor to so control their movements with due care that the lives of others may not be thereby endangered."
In conclusion, although the Courts have not yet applied strict liability to domestic animal-highway accidents, it is clear that the owner must establish that he used due care to confine his animals. It is important that the owner makes sure that all fences and stalls are properly maintained and secure and that all gates are latched and/or locked. Anything less will result in liability and exposure to the horse owner.
Enough legal talk–it’s time to hitch horses!
Ken is a practicing attorney in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, where a good bit of his practice involves negligence cases. He and his wife, Karen, own Sunny Hill Farm Belgians, and they have been exhibiting their six-horse hitch for several years at most major shows in the East.