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By: D. Jeffrey Grate
Imagine you are the owner of a farm in rural Georgia and were awakened by the knock on your door by a deputy sheriff who advised you that one of your cows had caused a motor vehicle accident. The deputy explained that a car collided with a cow on a nearby road and the driver was injured. As strange as this may sound, this scenario is not unheard of and accidents involving farm animals do occur, not only in Georgia, but throughout the country. At first glance, one would think that the owner of the animal involved is liable under any circumstance. After all, unlike the free range of the West in the 1800s, nowadays livestock should be kept in a fenced pasture and has no business in the middle of the road. Because of the widespread dependence on agriculture and the raising of livestock and the increasing population growth, different approaches to resolving conflicting issues have evolved. Eventually, most state legislatures recognized a need for a clear, uniform and definitive approach to liability in such situations. Georgia is just one of those states.
The applicable statute is found in Title 4, Chapter 3 of the official Code of Georgia, entitled Livestock Running at Large or Straying. This statute provides in part, that “No owner shall permit livestock to run at large on or stray upon the public roads of this state or any property not belonging to the owner of the livestock, except by permission of the owner of such property.” (O.C.G.A. 4-3-3) Livestock is defined as “…all animals of the equine, bovine or swine class, including goats, sheep, mules, horses, hogs, cattle and other grazing animals” (O.C.G.A. 4-3-1) and an owner as “any person, association, firm, or corporation, natural or artificial, owning, having custody of, or in charge of livestock.” (O.C.G.A. 4-3-2).These definitions are important because under certain circumstances, the actual owner of the property where the animal is kept may not be liable.
For example, in Supchak v. Pruit, 232 Ga. App. 680 (1998), a horse wandered from the grazing field into a road and was involved in an accident. Ruth Pruit, the property owner, filed her motion for summary judgment contending that although she owned the pasture where the horse was kept, she breached no duty owed plaintiffs as she did not own the horse, instead, her son’s family owned the horse The court commented that the evidence plainly showed that Ruth Pruitt merely allowed her son to keep his horses in her pasture. She received no pay for allowing the horse to be in her pasture. In fact, the record showed that she did not even know the name of the horse. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the judgment was affirmed. The appellate court held that Georgia law placed the duty on owners of livestock, not necessarily the property owner, to keep their animals from running at large.
In defending these cases, even in the face of the presumption of negligence, liability is not a given. In West v. West, 299 Ga. App 643 (2009) the trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgement in a case where plaintiff’s truck collided with defendants’ cow which had strayed onto the road. In affirming summary judgment, the Appellate Court held that although the mere fact that livestock is running at large permits an inference that the owner was negligent, that inference disappears when the owner introduces evidence that he has exercised ordinary care in the maintenance of his stock. Here, defendants introduced evidence that the fencing surrounding the pasture was in good repair and the gates were closed at the time of plaintiff’s accident. In light of the fact that plaintiff had not presented any admissible evidence to challenge these claims, there was no evidence of negligence, but only impermissible speculation. Such speculation “is not sufficient to create even an inference of fact for consideration on summary judgment.”
As shown by the foregoing cases, suit may be defended by motion based on plaintiff’s failure to identify the true owner of the animal or on the absence of an explanation of how the animal strayed from its confinement.