Barclay Damon
Barclay Damon

Legal Alert

Keepers and Owners of Farm Animals May Now Be Liable Under Ordinary Tort Principles

In an apparent departure from precedent, the New York Court of Appeals recently held that landowners and owners of farm animals may be liable under traditional tort principles for injuries caused by a farm animal that has been negligently allowed to stray from the property where it has been kept. See Hastings v. Sauve, et al., 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 3120 (May 2, 2013).

In Hastings, Plaintiff was injured when her vehicle struck a cow while she was traveling on a public road. Prior to the incident, the cow had been kept on the property of a defendant landowner. The cow was owned by a co-defendant. The fence that separated the landowner’s property from the road was “overgrown and in bad repair.” Plaintiff brought a personal injury action against multiple defendants, alleging negligence, including claims for failing to properly confine the cow and allowing it to wander into the road.

The lower court granted summary judgment for two moving defendants. After Plaintiff appealed, the Appellate Division, Third Department, affirmed and determined that all three defendants, including a non-moving co-defendant, were entitled to summary judgment. Hastings v. Sauve, 94 A.D.3d 1171 (3d Dep’t 2012). The Third Department, citing Bard v. Jahnke, 6 N.Y.3d 592 (2006), determined that a plaintiff may only proceed under a strict liability theory when claiming injuries caused by domestic animals, including cattle. The Third Department also concluded that Plaintiff was unable to maintain a negligence claim for failure to properly confine the cow, but it openly expressed its discomfort with being restrained to applying a strict liability standard. Plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals reversed the Third Department’s decision, holding that the strict liability standard set forth in Bard is inapplicable to these facts. In order to trigger strict liability there must be proof that the keeper or owner of the animal had knowledge of the animal’s dangerous propensities. Hastings involved a wandering of a farm animal, as opposed to the aggressive or threatening behavior by a domestic animal where the strict liability standard would apply. The Court reasoned that to apply a strict liability standard would serve “to immunize defendants who take little or no care to keep their livestock out of the roadway or off of other people’s property.” Therefore, Hastings now holds landowners and owners of farm animals accountable under traditional tort principles for negligence such as failing to properly confine an animal, even though the animal did not behave in an aggressive or threatening manner.

In reaching its decision, the Court expressly declined to consider whether this same rule should apply to cases involving household pets, including dogs and cats. However, it appears that this rule could conceivably be extended to encompass cases where plaintiffs are injured by household pets entering roadways or other people’s property as a result their owners’ negligence in failing to keep them confined or restrained.

If you require further information regarding the information presented in this Legal Alert and its impact on your organization, please contact Matthew J. Larkin, Chair of the Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area at (315) 425-2805 or mlarkin@hblaw.com.