Foster Swift Agricultural Law Update
Increased urbanization puts livestock farms closer than ever to highways and population centers, heightening the risk of accidents and resulting liabilities. Consequently, it is important to understand Michigan law regarding liabilities for damages caused by loose livestock. Previously, this newsletter discussed liabilities for property damage cause by livestock running at large, which is governed by statute (MCL § 443.11, et seq.). This article addresses liabilities for personal injuries suffered by people other than employees of the owner or keeper. Liabilities for injuries to employees will be discussed in an upcoming newsletter.
In Michigan, the issue of liability for injuries to a person (other than the owner or keeper’s employee) caused by an animal running at large is generally determined based on the common law theory of negligence. This legal standard essentially requires the injured person to prove that the animal’s owner or keeper acted unreasonably in causing the animal to escape.
In an attempt to prove negligence, the injured party could present evidence based on the specific facts and circumstances of the accident. Examples of negligence claims can include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Poorly maintained, or damaged facilities, fencing and/or enclosures from which the livestock escaped.
- Facilities, fencing and/or enclosures that, although in good repair, were deficient in some other way, e.g., fencing of inadequate height, improper latches used to secure barn doors, and/or enclosures made of improper materials which allowed the livestock to escape.
- Improperly or inadequately trained staff that failed to properly handle or restrain the animal. Examples of negligent conduct can include gates left open, use of improper equipment, employing unqualified and inexperienced individuals, failure to regularly inspect the facility, just to name a few.
- The animals’ owner or keeper knew of past escapes but failed to take appropriate corrective action to prevent future escapes.
Depending on the facts and law, owners of loose livestock have a few possible defenses that can include:
- The animal was properly restrained, and the owner or keeper was not negligent. Proving this defense can sometimes require testimony from an "expert" knowledgeable of keeping and/or handling the particular animal.
- The animal owner or keeper played no role in its escape because someone else, such as a vandal or a reckless driver, damaged or tampered with the fence allowing the animal to escape.
- The incident was caused, at least in part, by the injured person’s own negligence.
Animal producers can take advantage of several risk management options to help reduce potential liabilities. Good day-to-day management practices and maintenance programs can go a long way to prevent accidents and liabilities. But because accidents can happen at even at well-run, well-maintained facilities, proper liability insurance is extremely important. Additionally, for facilities that allow people to enter the premises, a well-drafted release of liability can potentially be a powerful defense. These documents are most commonly utilized by horse farms, but other farms can also require visitors to execute a release before visiting or touring its facility.
If you would like additional information regarding liability issues and risk management options, please call 248.539.9900.