livestock running at large
New law establishes clear standards for liability, adds alpacas, llamas and bison
Livestock owners and keepers in Ohio will soon have less risk of automatic liability when their animals escape enclosures and run loose on public roadways or the property of others. The Ohio legislature has revised the "animals running at large" law to clarify two different standards for criminal and civil liability under the law.
Criminal liability will occur only when proven that a livestock operator behaved "recklessly" in allowing the animals to run loose. Under Ohio law, a person behaves recklessly when he or she perversely disregards a known risk of his or her conduct, with heedless indifference to the consequences of that conduct. For example, a livestock owner who sees but intentionally ignores a downed fence where cattle graze near a roadway could be deemed "reckless."
The new law establishes a different standard of liability for a civil situation. A person may recover damages against a livestock owner if harm resulted because the livestock owner's "negligence" caused the animals to escape. Under Ohio law, negligence is a substantial lapse of "due care" that results in a failure to perceive or avoid a risk. For example, a livestock owner who has not checked the line fences in a grazing area for several years could be deemed "negligent."
Additionally, the revised law states that an animal being at large creates an initial presumption of negligence by the owner. The animal owner must then rebut the presumption by proving that he or she exercised due care.
The revised law should address a growing problem in Ohio, where livestock owners have been held automatically liable when their animals are found running at large--regardless of the reason for the animals' escape or any actions taken or not taken by the owner. This problem has occurred most frequently with criminal prosecutions. Owners of escaped animals have been assessed automatic criminal penalties, without having an opportunity to explain their management practices or present facts about the animals' escape. The new law remedies this problem by clarifying that criminal liability is not "automatic" simply because livestock are loose; there must be proof that the owner was reckless.
In addition to addressing the standards for liability, the revised animals at large law also:
- Adds llamas, alpacas and bison to the list of animals addressed in the liability provisions, which already included horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, swine and geese.
- Also adds llamas, alpacas and bison to the law's provisions for taking, confinement and care of animals running at large.
- Removes a separate liability provision for male breeding animals; male breeding animals will now fall under the same liability section of the law as other animals.
- Revises a similar civil liability provision for livestock in Ohio's line fence law to clarify that negligence is the requisite standard of liability under that law.
The governor signed H.B. 22 on June 21, 2011; the law takes effect on September 20, 2011. View H.B. 22 here.
Bill introduced in Ohio House of Representatives to clarify liability standards
A recurring problem around Ohio may be resolved if H.B. 503 progresses through the General Assembly before the end of the year. Representatives Bubp (R-88th Dist.) and Garrison (D-93rd Dist.) recently introduced the bill to revise Ohio's animals at large law. The proposal clarifies the standards for civil and criminal liability under the law.
The animals running at large law, found in Ohio Revised Code Chapter 951, states that no owner or keeper of horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, swine, or geese "shall permit" the animals to run at large on public roads or outside of their enclosures. Many law officers, prosecutors and judges have interpreted the word "shall" as a trigger for automatic liability--if an animal is out, the owner is liable. But in a case before the Ohio Supreme Court, the court stated that the law does not establish automatic liability. The court explained that the law creates the duty to exercise ordinary care to keep animals from running at large and sets up a "rebuttable presumption" of liability. An animal owner whose animals are found running at large has the opportunity to rebut the presumption of liability and prove that he or she exercised ordinary care to contain the animals. Despite the Supreme Court opinion, animal owners have continued to be subject to prosecution under an automatic liability standard.
H.B. 503 removes the possibility of interpreting the animals at large law as a strict liability law and lays out two different standards for civil and criminal liability. An owner or keeper of animals who "negligently" permits animals to run at large is liable for all damages caused by the animal, and an owner or keeper who "recklessly" permits animals to run at large is guilty of a fourth degree criminal misdemeanor. Under Ohio law, "negligence" is the failure to exercise ordinary care, while "recklessness" is acting with indifference to consequences and with disregard to a known risk.
H.B. 503 would alleviate the problems many animal owners in Ohio have faced--potential criminal liability when natural disasters, vandals, pranksters or neighbor disputes, rather than the owner's action or inaction, caused the release of the animals. A disturbing increase in such incidents led the Ohio State Bar Association and its Agricultural Law Committee to work with H.B. 503 sponsors to develop the revisions. View H.B. 503 here.