December 20, 2012

Onus on farmers to prevent animal accidents

Cows and humans usually get along very nicely, but sometimes accidents happen. A number of cow-trampling stories have made the headlines recently prompting the question, who is responsible?

As farmers and landowners will know, the onus is on them to keep their stock in their fields and barns. In one recent case, a farmer was held liable for an injury caused by a cow that walked onto a road through a gate apparently left open by a walker. The rationale was that the farmer should have been aware that careless walkers on a well-worn path often leave the gate open and he should have pre-empted the situation by installing a self-closing gate.

Cases often hinge on how the animals escaped. The law understands that animals can do extraordinary things that farmers cannot guard against. Cows and pigs can escape through or over proper fencing, gates and cattle grids, and often the farmer will be blameless.

However, in certain circumstances an animal owner may be found responsible and told to pay compensation for injuries caused by their animals even though they are not at fault and even where the animals are still in their own field. The critical distinction is whether the animal behaved dangerously. For example, if a cow attacks a dog walker because they sense a threat – such as a walker wandering between a cow and her calf – or a horse bolts along a road in fright resulting in a car crash – the owner is likely to be held liable.

This will seem unfair to many but law makers have decided that someone should insure against the risk of accidents and they believe the best people to do that are the animal owners. Insurance is society’s way of spreading the cost of the risk.

Richard Brooks is currently dealing with several cases involving cows which attacked walkers, only one of which was with a dog. Their natural inquisitiveness or fear combined with their sheer weight has resulted in various very serious injuries.

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