If cattle are driven onto another property, the herdowner will be liable only if negligent.
Animals have always played an important part in the lives of Irish farmers, many of whose very livelihoods have depended entirely on the production of animals, such as cattle, sheep and pigs.
Much of the law which covers liability for damage and injuries caused by animals imposes ‘strict liability’ on the owner.
This means that the plaintiff need only prove that the incident occurred, and that the defendant’s animal was responsible.
The courts have made it clear that owners of animals causing a nuisance to a neighbour — for example, loud noises or bad odours — are liable.
The law draws a distinction between wild and domestic animals. Wild animals are kept at the owner’s risk and if they cause any damage, the owner is responsible for that damage. For this to apply, an animal must belong to a ‘dangerous’ class of animals.
In the case of tame or domestic animals, which includes all farm animals except for dogs, the owner will only be liable for damage caused if the animal has a ‘mischievous’ tendency.
I wrote here about liability for dogs specifically, in a recent article.
In one particular unusual court case, the plaintiff’s cow was killed by two of the defendant’s sows. In order to succeed in his case, the plaintiff had to establish that the defendant’s sow had a “mischievous propensity”.
The plaintiff provided proof that, to the defendant’s knowledge, the sow had previously attacked and killed fowl and consequently, the defendant was held liable.
As can be seen from this decision, it is sufficient that the owner has simply heard about the mischievous tendency, in order to be held liable.
In the situation where cattle stray on to another person’s land, the farmer will be liable for any damage caused, irrespective of negligence.
Liability under the cattle trespass rule only arises where the cattle stray on to another person’s property on their own volition.
In the converse situation, if cattle are driven on to another property, the owner will be liable only for the damage caused if he is, in some way, negligent in the course of driving the cattle.
Negligence in this case might consist of, for example, failing to have adequate help assisting with the control of the animals.
Animals on the road
The owner must take reasonable care that damage is not caused by an animal straying onto the public road.
Consequently, landowners need to ensure that their land is properly fenced.
An exception to this is land where fencing is not customary.
An example would be of some parcels of land in the Dingle Peninsula in Co Kerry, where it is commonplace to see sheep grazing at the side of the road, with no fencing surrounding them.
The key issue for a farmer is that he or she must be in a position to show that he or she took reasonable care by having adequate fencing and a locked gate (if the circumstances require).
The landowner is not required to prove how the animals came to be on the road, and the fact that the animals succeeded in escaping on to the road is not, of itself, proof of any negligence on the landowner’s behalf.
Ways to minimise liability would be to ensure a written document is in place, documenting the procedure for the moving of animals, having adequate help, not moving too many animals at once, and not rushing the movement of animals.
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