Fencing Laws: Liability for Loose Horses
Most people take great care to properly confine and restrain their horses. Despite proper care, horses do sometimes escape. Clearly, there is concern for the safety of the loose horse. This article, however, focuses on the horse owner’s liability for the damages or injuries resulting from the loose horse. A myriad of damages can occur. For example, a loose horse could stray into a road, causing a vehicular accident. This accident could result in personal injuries and property damages. Another example is where a horse escapes onto another person’s property, damaging the property.
Livestock laws vary from state to state, and even county to county. The livestock laws address the fencing responsibilities of people keeping horses, specifically addressing two issues:
The duty of the horse owner/keeper to restrain their horse – whether the horse owner/keeper must restrain their horses or if all others must fence horse out of their property; and
The minimum construction requirements of fences.
History of Livestock Laws
Livestock laws originally held horse owners/keepers strictly liable for all damages caused by their livestock straying from their property. Strictly liable means that the injured party need not show any fault on the part of the horse owner/keeper – just that the person was damaged by the owner’s loose horse. Upon such showing, the injured party was entitled to recovery.
The strict liability laws did not work well in some locations, especially in rural areas where livestock often wandered with no fencing. Many states eventually enacted “open range" statutes. Basically, the open range statute did not require horse owners/keepers to restrain their horses. Instead, when someone did not want livestock on their property, it was that person’s responsibility to fence out the livestock.
Obviously, the open range approach to livestock laws will not work everywhere in the United States as development continues. Many areas again revised their laws – this time to a system much like the original, strict liability system. The new (and most common) type of livestock law again requires horse owners/keepers to restrain or fence their horses. There is, however, a large difference between the new and the original systems. Most new laws do not provide for strict liability for damages caused by loose horses. Instead, a horse owner/keeper will only be held liable for injuries caused by their horses if they are negligent. Negligence has been addressed and explained in several of my previous articles. In a nutshell, negligence is the failure to use ordinary care or failing to do that which a person of ordinary prudence would have done under the same or similar circumstances. Thus, a horse owner/keeper has a duty to use the care in restraining their horse that an ordinary person would use. If the horse owner/keeper does use such care, under the negligence view of livestock laws, they will have no liability for damages or injuries caused by their loose horse. Keep in mind the injured party bears the burden of proving the horse owner/keeper’s negligence.
Current State of Livestock Laws
Unfortunately, there is no universal livestock law, as different jurisdictions have different needs regarding the restraining of horses and other animals. You should check with your local code to determine the current law in your area. The most common type of law is the negligence approach to loose horses. It is important to note, however, that there are a few jurisdictions which employ the open range or strict liability type of livestock laws.
Who is Liable?
If someone suffers injury or damages from a loose horse, they will seek reimbursement from all sources responsible. Clearly, they will seek reimbursement from the owner of the horse that caused the damages or injuries. Other responsible parties could include the keeper of the horse (i.e., boarding stable, trainer, keeper) or the person responsible for or handling the horse when the injury occurred.
Criminal penalties are rare in the case of loose horses causing injuries or damages. Only where the evidence supports criminal penalties should one be concerned with facing fines or imprisonment. For such criminal penalties to apply, the actions of the horse owner/keeper must be egregious. This would require extremely poorly maintained facilities, continual problems with loose horses from the same person or stable or total disregard for the safety of others. As you would suspect, for criminal penalties to apply, the situation must be extremely bad.
There are several steps a horse owner/keeper can take in order to reduce your chance of being liable for damages and injuries resulting from a loose horse:
· Implement a Risk Management Program. In order to reduce your overall liability for your horses and stable, you should institute and follow a risk management plan. This program should include checking all fences, paddocks and stalls to ensure they are safe, sound and will prevent escape of horses.
· Hire Competent Employees. The people handling and caring for your horses should be competent to handle the horses, as well as determine if a stall, pasture or paddock is sufficient for each individual horse.
· Train Your Employees. All horses an people are different. Make sure your employees appreciate the special needs and handling requirements for each horse in order to prevent loose horses.
· Research Your Local Law. You should become familiar with your local livestock laws in order for you to ensure your fences comply with the local code. Failure to comply with your local code could increase the risk of your horse getting loose, as well as your chance of being cited for code violations by the county, city or state.
· Obtain Proper Liability Insurance. If you have horses on your property or own horses, you need to contact your insurance agent to obtain proper liability insurance. Such insurance will normally cover your liability for damages and injuries caused by loose horses. You should verify this coverage with your insurance agent.
One hopes they never have to address the issue of injuries and damages caused by their loose horse. The best way to avoid such liability is to prevent your horses from getting loose. If the unthinkable happens, you need to know if you will be liable for the resulting damages. Such determination will be based upon your local law. Finally, the best way to protect yourself from incurring personal liability due to your loose horse is to procure proper insurance.
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