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Open Range Laws Impact Liability in Livestock Accidents

Open Range Laws and Livestock Accidents

California is a major agricultural state, and a large part of its agricultural sector involves the raising of livestock like beef cattle, dairy cows, sheep, goats, and other animals. Additionally, many people raise and own horses for sport and pleasure riding, as well as a few as working animals “riding the range.” Occasionally, however, one of these animals may get loose and wander onto a roadway and into the path of a motor vehicle. As unfortunate and sad as the resulting collision may be for the animal, it’s important to consider that a full-grown cow or horse may weigh several hundred pounds. Running into one can have deadly consequences for the driver and occupants of a vehicle. There are several laws and court rulings that govern establishing liability for these personal injury claims in California. Among the most important factors to consider is the relationship between open range laws and livestock accidents.

Laws Generally Related to Livestock-Vehicle Accidents

Among these statutes that define a livestock owner’s responsibilities related to potential livestock-vehicle accidents and the personal injuries and other damages that may result are sections 16902 and 16904 of the California Food and Agriculture Code. The statutes related to open range laws and livestock fencing are in sections 17121 through 17128 of the Food and Agriculture Code.

  • Section 16902 states that livestock owners may not intentionally or negligently allow livestock to be upon or wander onto a public highway if both sides of the road are separated from fences, walls, hedges, sidewalks, curbs, lawns, or buildings. An exception is made when the animals are being controlled or directed by someone who is tending them. This section establishes a duty on the livestock owners’ part to properly control their animals.
  • Section 16904 directly addresses liability in livestock versus motor vehicle collisions by stating that in any civil lawsuit brought by a driver, passenger, or owner of a motor vehicle involved in such an incident that there is no automatic presumption of negligence on the part of the livestock owner simply because the animal was on the roadway. In other words, the animal’s presence on the road cannot automatically lead to an assumption that its owner had been negligent. It is still necessary to prove that the owner unreasonably did or failed to do something – that is, that they were negligent – that allowed the animal to find its way onto the road. Generally, this involves showing that there was inadequate or improper fencing, gates, barn structures, or other methods of penning and controlling the animal’s movements that allowed it to escape onto the road.
  • Sections 17121 through 17128 are the important statutes addressing open range laws and livestock fencing. “Open range laws” generally refer to laws defining areas where livestock owners need not use fencing to contain their animals upon specific areas of land. These are generally very rural areas and often include areas of federal land where the livestock owner may have purchased grazing rights. Sections 17123, 17125, and 17126 of the California Food and Agriculture Code specify that all Siskiyou, Modoc, and Lassen counties and portions of Trinity and Shasta counties are “devoted chiefly to grazing.” Section 17124 further states that the board of supervisors of any county may define portions of their county as similar “open range” grazing land.

What is the Impact of Open Range Laws on Livestock Accidents?

These laws establish further exceptions on controlling livestock by stating that livestock owners need not fence the land where their animals are grazing – they are literally operating on “open range” lands. This means that the fenced-land rule discussed in Section 16902 – where livestock owners must control their animals’ access to roadways – does not apply in open range areas. This removes the most frequent application of Section 16902 in livestock-motor vehicle accidents since fences (rather than buildings, sidewalks, etc.) are by far the most common thing dividing rural roadways from adjoining lands. This common tool for proving livestock owner negligence in these cases – that the animal escaped from inadequately or improperly fenced areas – is removed from the personal injury attorney’s toolbox. It becomes necessary to find and prove some other form of negligence to establish liability for injuries and damages sustained by motor vehicle drivers and passengers.

No Need for a Fence Does Not Mean No Need for Proper Control

When the meaning and implications of statutes are not entirely clear from their text, it becomes the turn of the courts to further define and refine their meaning. An important ruling that applies to the California open range laws and livestock accidents came in the appellate court decision in Shively v. Dye Creek Cattle Co. (1994). The case involved a husband and wife traveling in their Toyota Corolla on State Highway 44 in Lassen County. It was nighttime, and they were unable to see the black Angus bull that was lying on the roadway in front of them, resulting in a collision. The defendants owned the bull and the herd of which it was part grazing under permit on federal land.

The trial court in Shively v. Dye ruled that the defendant did not have a duty to the injured plaintiffs to keep the animal off the road because the open range laws eliminated any such obligation. In reversing this ruling, the appellate court stated that although the defendant had no obligation to fence in the animals (because of the open range laws), they still had a more general duty to the plaintiffs to properly control the foreseeable danger their livestock might present to motorists. The appellate court pointed to California Civil Code 1714 – a very broadly-worded law that says everyone is responsible for injuries caused to another person due to not using “ordinary care” in managing themselves and their property. The appellate court in Shively stated that the trial court made an error in presuming that fencing was the only relevant form of animal control and that the open range laws, therefore, meant that no control was necessary. The appellate court pointed out that other duties might apply – such as the general duty under Civil Code 1714 – as well as the factor of “foreseeability,” given that other livestock-vehicle accidents had occurred in the area.

In essence, open range laws make it more difficult to prove liability in a motor vehicle versus livestock incident, but they don’t eliminate all possible ground for liability.

See a video about avoiding and handling collision with animals on roadways:

Sacramento Personal Injury Lawyer

Thanks for reading this discussion of open range laws and livestock accidents, and some of the applicable laws in California. My name is Ed Smith, and I have been a Sacramento personal injury lawyer since 1982. As an attorney with decades of experience representing injury victims from many types of incidents, including livestock accidents, I encourage you to contact us if you or a member of your family has been injured due to the actions of a negligent person. To speak with one of our skilled injury attorneys and receive free, friendly advice, please call us at (916) 921-6400 or toll-free at (800) 404-5400. You can also use our online contact form to reach us.

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