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Fence Liability: Escaped Animals

by Judy Knowler

Fencing does more than just partition the farm. Good fencing is attributed to fewer livestock-vehicle accidents, which can be rampant on public roads crossing farmlands.

Most states implement laws that dictate fencing and the extent of the farmer’s liability in case their livestock gets loose and causes injury or property damage.

Generally, the farm owner is liable for all injuries and damages caused by their loose livestock unless they can prove that the fence was in good condition and there was no negligence on their part. In most states, it’s a statutory obligation for farmers to ensure their animals don’t escape their premises.

Here’s what you need to know about fence liability for escaped animals and the defense you can raise against a claim.

The Law’s Classification of Animals

The law typically recognizes two classes of animals. These are wild and domestic animals.

Farm livestock is often deemed harmless to people and therefore classified as domestic animals. If you own a domestic animal, the law assigns you certain legal liabilities arising from acts done by the livestock. These acts include the following:

  • Your livestock breaks through a fence into the road and causes injury or an accident
  • Your livestock breaks through the fence into neighboring farmland and destroys crops
  • Your livestock, such as a rogue bull, breaks through the fence and injures someone on your property

A lawsuit is very likely to arise in these scenarios. In most states, the farm owner will be charged a hefty fine or required to serve jail time if found guilty.

You must consult an attorney if your livestock gets loose and commits any of these acts to know where you stand legally and how you can plan your defense.

The Fence-In Fence-Out Rule

Most U.S. states follow the fence-in fence-out rule in determining the fencing liability of a farm owner.

States not in the western part of the U.S. often follow the fence-in rule. This means that farm owners are legally required to fence their animals in. The law in most of these states also requires that the owners of adjoining lands install and adequately maintain all partition fences equally.

This rule can cause problems when a livestock owner shares a partition fence with another landowner who doesn’t keep livestock and thus doesn’t need a fence.

If they don’t equally participate in the fence’s maintenance and loose livestock goes through the portion of the fence they should equally maintain, causing property damage or injury, they cannot sue the livestock owner for damages.

The non-livestock owner can also be liable if loose livestock damage another neighbor’s property, having escaped through a defective portion of the fence that they’re equally responsible for maintaining with the livestock owner.

To ensure proper accountability, some states enforce special rules that further narrow liability to either the livestock or non-livestock owners adjacent to each other.

How Liability is Generally Determined

In most cases, liability is generally determined using the common law theory of negligence. The injured or suing party must prove that the livestock owner acted irresponsibly, causing the animals to escape.

In most cases, the aggrieved party will table evidence showing negligence based on various facts and circumstances surrounding the incident. These claims include but are not limited to the following:

  • Damaged or poorly maintained facilities, enclosures, or fencing from where the livestock escaped
  • Inadequately or improperly trained staff that failed to restrain or handle the loose animal
  • Improper or inadequate livestock feeding that caused them to escape
  • Fencing, facilities, or enclosures that were deficient in some way despite being in good repair. For instance, this may be improper latches to secure the gates, inadequate fence height, or improper fence material.
  • Failure by the livestock owner to take appropriate corrective action despite previous escapes

Some states have stricter laws. For instance, Michigan has the Animal Running at Large Act, which holds the livestock owner liable, regardless of proof of any wrongdoing, for civil liabilities involving property damage.

The aggrieved party reserves the right to demand reasonable compensation for the damages.

The Variances of Liability Depending on Where and How Your Livestock Escaped

The extent of your liability depends on where and how your livestock escaped. Typically, most cases will involve damage to your neighbor’s crops and animals walking or crossing the highway dangerously.

Damage to Your Neighbor’s Crops

Previously, some states, such as Missouri, were open-range states. This meant that livestock were free to roam, and it was a farmer’s responsibility to fence out domestic animals. However, this open range system has been replaced by the closed range system, which transfers fencing liability to the livestock owner.

If your animal wanders and damages your neighbor’s crops in a closed-range state, you’re fully liable for all damages. However, in some states, the aggrieved party must prove negligence to win compensation.

Incidences on the Highway

Animals can break loose and trespass on public roads such as highways. In most of these cases, especially ones involving injury, the aggrieved party must prove negligence on the side of the livestock owner.

However, the defense will also try and establish negligence on the driver’s side. The driver must prove that they were exercising extreme caution while driving. The court will also assess other factors, such as whether the animal was visible, the driver was speeding, or the driver was distracted.

The Defenses You Can Raise for the Loose Livestock

Depending on the available facts and advice from your attorney, you can table the following defenses against your liability for a loose animal:

  • The animal was restrained correctly, and the fence was installed and maintained properly. This defense may require testimony from an “expert” in handling the particular animal.
  • The aggrieved party acted negligently, causing the accident or incident.
  • A third party, such as a reckless driver or vandal, tampered with or damaged the fence, causing the animals to escape.

Ensure You Go for a Robust Fencing Solution

It is crucial that you avoid brushing with the law because of animals breaking through your fence. You can ensure this by implementing proper protocols to secure your animals, such as regular fence maintenance.

More importantly, contact a fencing professional and get a robust fencing solution that will keep your animals controlled.

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