One of the issues that ranchers have to contend with is their livestock getting out of the fence.
Not long ago on my way to work, I stopped to move cattle away from a local Farm to Market road. They were grazing near the road in a blind corner. They weren’t in the road, just very close on the side. They startled me and they were startling the other drivers.
It’s a call no cattle owner wants to receive – news that his or her cattle got out onto the roadway and were struck by a vehicle.
Not only is there concern for the driver and disappointment over losing the cow, oftentimes landowners face another question as well: Can liability be imposed for cattle getting onto the roadway? Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation for cattle owners across the country.
The answer to this question depends on the law in the cattle owner’s specific area as to whether a duty is imposed on livestock owners to contain their animals.
Most states take approach, imposing “fence-in” or “closed-range laws.” In states like these, landowners generally do owe a duty to act reasonably and non-negligently in keeping livestock from escaping onto roadways.
In states with fence-in laws, legal liability will depend on whether the landowner breached his or her duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.
The mere fact a cow was present on the roadway is generally not enough, in itself, to impose liability. Instead, courts consider the factual circumstances surrounding the specific situation.
Factors courts will consider in these cases include whether cattle were frequently reported as being out on the road, whether fences were adequately maintained and whether the cattle owner had notice that the cattle were out on the road.
Other states, particularly those in the West, have “fence-out” or “open-range” laws, providing that landowners owe no duty to an injured plaintiff to keep animals from roaming free on roadways.
In areas that are open range, a livestock owner does not face liability for an accident because he or she did not owe a duty to the plaintiff.
Further complicating the issues is that there can be different laws in different portions of a state. For example, although Texas is considered a “fence-out” state, major exceptions change the rules in certain locations.
In Texas, all interstate and state highways are considered to be “fence-in.” Also, many local counties, such as our own, passed local stock laws that modify the general “fence-out” rules to make them “fence-in” areas. According to one account I have read, Angelina County became closed-range in the 1950’s.
Similarly, although Montana is considered a “fence-out” state, within all incorporated cities and towns are deemed to be “fence-in.” These examples are an important illustration of the need for cattle owners to ensure they understand the applicable law in their specific location.
The best advice for any cattle owner is to ensure that his or her cattle are kept safely to avoid an accident in the first place. Whether legally liable or not, no livestock owner wants to lose a cow and especially not see anyone injured.
If that is a possibility, livestock owners should consult with their attorney to ensure all steps are being taken to avoid liability in the event a collision does occur. Lastly, ranchers should also confirm they have adequate liability insurance that will cover this type of situation.
On that morning that I came across the loose cattle, I parked my truck on the side of the road with my hazard lights flashing. I directed traffic to slow down and soon enough, the owner of the cattle showed up with a sack of feed and was easily able to get them off the easement and back into a pasture. One stretch of fence to fix and that shouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is email@example.com