“Dear Dale: While driving down a country road, I came around a turn and spotted cows in the road. I could not stop in time and I struck a cow. I ended up being injured in the accident. Is the person who owned the cows responsible for my injuries? A friend of mine said cows from the same farm have been on that road on other occasions.
Answer: The care the farmer used in his unsuccessful effort to keep the cows secure and out of the road and whether he should have foreseen that the cows could escape are the keys to whether he would be liable for your injuries.
Under Ohio law, owners of animals such as cows, horses, sheep, and geese must keep them out of public roadways. But the fact that a cow or a horse somehow ends up on a road and causes an accident does not automatically mean the animal’s owner is responsible for any resulting injuries. Judges who have dealt with this issue have held that violation of the statute creates a presumption that the animal’s owner was negligent, but the owner can argue that by showing he took ordinary care to keep the animal out of the road.
That’s a reasonable interpretation of a statute that doesn’t specifically state that the owners of livestock are absolutely responsible for the injuries their animals cause. However, the law as drafted by the General Assembly seems odd given that a separate statute makes dog owners strictly liable for any injuries their dogs cause. I’m just guessing that in our agriculture-dependent state, lawmakers were reluctant to impose that kind of liability on farmers.
But if a dog wandered into the road and caused a driver to swerve and hit a tree, the owner of the dog would be liable for the driver’s injuries. The dog’s owner would have no argument that she wasn’t liable because she took reasonable steps to keep the dog from running free. It just seems weird to impose different standards of liability, but maybe there are good policy reasons I haven’t considered. In any event, in order to make a case in this type of situation, you’d have to show that the farmer breached a duty to keep his cows out of the road so you wouldn’t be injured. You’d also have to show that the breach of duty actually caused your injuries. Without getting overly technical, part of the evaluation of whether the farmer owed a duty is how foreseeable it was that the cows could escape and whether an escaped cow could cause harm to a motorist.
From my reading of the cases that have dealt with this topic, if the farmer can show he acted in a reasonable way to ensure that his cows wouldn’t escape an enclosure and enter the roadway, he has a good argument to avoid liability. The situation you’ve described, however, adds a twist because you mentioned that the cows have left the farmer’s property in the past and have been found in the road. That evidence could bolster your claim because you might be able to show that the farmer had prior knowledge that his cows were capable of escaping and ending up in the road. This would help you prove that it was foreseeable that they could escape again and that he didn’t take sufficient measures to ensure that it wouldn’t happen.
Factors such as how many times the cows have escaped before, how long ago they escaped, and whether they escaped the enclosure in the same way or in the same place would seem to be significant in your case. But you at least have some evidence that could help your case.”