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Court rules farmers can be held liable for accidents caused by uncontrolled livestock

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MALONE - Due to a local law firm’s success in the New York State Court of Appeals, one of the firm’s clients will be able to have her case brought up in civil court.

This decision by the Court of Appeals also changes the protocol for similar cases in the future.

“On May 2, the Court of Appeals held that owners of farm animals, and landowners who are responsible for keeping them contained, can be sued for negligence if the uncontrolled livestock cause an accident,” according to a news release from Fisher, Bessette, Muldowney & Hunter, LLP (FBMH), a law firm based in Malone.

Attorney Matthew McArdle said that in the cas, the firm’s client was traveling on County Route 53 in North Bangor on a September 2007 evening when her car hit a black cow that had escaped from one of the surrounding farm’s pastures and was in the road.

The client sustained a multitude of injuries, McArdle said Monday, including ruptured vertebrae in her neck.

“Lower courts had rejected claims by FBMH’s client against the property owner and the owner of the cow, applying the strict liability standard for domestic animals that cause injuries,” according to the release.

Mr. McArdle said this standard protocol applies to various injuries sustained by animals, including dog bites. However, showing a required “vicious propensity” by the cow in this case would’ve been difficult, one of the reasons being cows are not known to be vicious animals.

“We would’ve had to show that the cow – this particular cow – had been out on many different occasions,” he said, adding that out of a field full of cows this would have been very difficult.

Mr.McArdle noted this case “would’ve created a standard” that owners of a cow or pastures full of livestock would not need to maintain fences to contain their animals.

Since lower courts rejected the client’s claims, Mr. McArdle presented the case before the Court of Appeals on March 21 in Albany along with sending in multiple written arguments.

The court’s decision that “common law of negligence must apply” means that “it would have to [be] proven that the owner or landowner was negligent in keeping the cow off the road,” according to the release.

Mr. McArdle added that proof would be needed that the owner “failed to exercise reasonable care,” noting that in this particular case the fence had not been properly maintained.

While Mr. McArdle said the firms’s client will need to go before a civil court in an effort to recoup the damages to her vehicle as well as medical expenses, this decision by the Court of Appeals allows the client to “have her day in court,” which he said wouldn’t have happened under the old standard.

“I am extremely pleased with the decision of the Court of Appeals,” Mr. McArdle said in the release, adding that the decision will have “effect[s] statewide, and is one of the most significant decisions in this area of the law over the last decade.”

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