Loose Livestock

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April L. Neihsl
Foster Swift Agricultural Law Update
April 2011

Several cows from a dairy escape their enclosure. They trample and eat organic herbs in a neighboring field. Law enforcement is called and takes custody of the cows. Who pays for the lost crops? What becomes of the cows?

The Michigan "Animal Running at Large" Act, M.C.L. § 433.11, et seq. ("the Act") answers these questions and others. The Act imposes absolute or strict liability on the "owner" of cattle, horses, sheep, swine, mules, burros, or goats that trespass onto the property of another and cause property damage. The Act also allows "[a] person who sustains any loss of, or damage to, property by an animal running at large" to "demand reasonable compensation from the owner of the animal . . ."

If you come across an animal running "at large" on your property, you may confine the animal and immediately notify law enforcement, which should promptly take custody of the animal. If the animal damaged your property, you may submit a written demand for compensation from its "owner" to the law enforcement agency holding the animal. Your demand must be "verified" and include a statement of when, where, what, and how much damage was done; the identity or description of the animal that allegedly caused the damage; the identity of the animal’s owner (if known); and the amount you demand.

If you are the "owner" of an animal that damaged property while "at large," you will be liable for that damage even without proof of your wrongdoing. You could also be charged with a criminal misdemeanor for enabling your animal to run "at large." If you make restitution for the damage, law enforcement must return your animal to you. When the "owner" cannot be identified or refuses to make restitution, the Act sets forth a procedure to sell the animal at public auction, but owners can redeem it within three months of the sale.

Importantly, the Act only applies to property damage and does not govern an owner’s liability for personal injuries caused by loose animals. Liability for personal injuries will be discussed in upcoming newsletters.