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Holy Cow, Negligence, and the Doctrine of ‘Strict’ Liability

published April 07, 2012

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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The issue of the liability of animal owners, especially bovine, and the issue of the standards that a plaintiff has to meet in order to justify a claim of being hurt by a herbivorous animal was again put to test in a recent case Karen Hastings v. Laurier Sauve, et al, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department No. 512407.

The court dismissed the suit for want of clear precedents and stare decisis and held that suit be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to meet the standards of liability. However, as was evident from the ruling, the court itself was quite at a fix to determine what should be those standards, and it was the holy cow that got the benefit of doubt.

The court clearly opined that this was a case where the plaintiffs should have been vindicated, but as the law regarding domestic animals stand presently combined with the standards of cause of action and liability, the court has no other option, but to choose reluctantly to dismiss the case.

The course is open to the plaintiffs to seek redress, because jurisprudence states “where there's an injury, there's a remedy.” And the court, in its order of dismissal, clearly indicated that it was compelled to dismiss the case, and frustrated, as its hands were tied by present law.

The Case:

The case in short is that on September 11, 2007, Karen Hastings (plaintiff) had an accident on County Route 53 when her vehicle collided with a stray cow at night. The cow, owned by one Laurier Sauve, had strayed on to Route 53 from his farm located next to the highway. In 2008, the plaintiff and her husband commenced an action alleging that the defendant and others were negligent in not properly confining the cow to its pasture and allowing it to wander on to the adjacent highway thus contributing to the accident. The defendants moved for a summary judgment dismissing the complaint and the plaintiff's case was dismissed by the Supreme Court, resulting in the instant appeal.

The Law:
  • Cattle are included in the definition of domestic animals under the Agriculture and Markets Law
  • A string of precedents indicate that “injuries inflicted by ‘domestic animals' may only proceed under strict liability based on the owner's knowledge of the animal's vicious propensities, not on theories of common-law-negligence.”

The Impasse:

The court noted “Had plaintiffs alleged a cause of action against defendants based on strict liability, they would have been required to present evidence that this particular cow had a vicious or abnormal propensity that caused this accident – and defendants knew or should have known of it.” In absence of such claims and accompanying evidence the suit is liable to be dismissed.

The Court's Frustration:

The court noted, “The existence of any abnormal or vicious propensity played no role in this accident, yet, under the law as it now exists, defendants' legal responsibility for what happened is totally dependent upon it.”

The court further noted: “We believe in this limited circumstance, traditional rules of negligence should apply to determine the legal responsibility of the animal's owner … However, it is not for this Court to alter this rule, and while it is in place, we are obligated to enforce it.”

The Court's Observation:

The Court observed in the case, that there can be no doubt that the owner of a large animal such as a cow or a horse assumes a very different set of responsibilities in terms of the animal's care and maintenance than … a household pet. “The need to maintain control over such a large animal is obvious, and the risk that exists if it is allowed to roam unattended onto a public street is self-evident” and not dependent upon the animal's nature vicious or otherwise. The accident was caused and injuries happened because the defendants failed to keep the cow confined on farm property, and allowed it to wander onto the adjacent highway in the middle of the night.

However, according to the present law the suit is dismissed with costs to be paid by the plaintiffs to the defendants.

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