People who own livestock (sheep, cattle, horses, etc.) are often liable for damages caused should their stock escape their enclosure and cause damage or injury. The cause of action under the stock law is a very specific cause of action, filed under §270.010, RSMo. This cause of action is strictly statutory, based on the claim that a stock owner failed to keep the stock within its enclosure, resulting in a Plaintiff's injuries.
In its current form, §270.010 RSMo, states that if the owner of any stock permits it to run outside the enclosure of the owner, the owner is required to pay all persons damaged by reason of the animal running at large. The only exception is that the stock owner is not responsible for any accident on a public road if the animal was outside the enclosure through no fault or negligence of the owner of the animal.
This cause of action does not apply to landowners who rent pasture to a stock owner. §270.010, RSMo. does not establish a cause of action against anyone other than the owner of the animal.
Unlike many eastern states, there is no common law cause of action in Missouri for trespass by animals. When Missouri became a state in 1821, it adopted the common law of England that existed when Missouri was formed as a Territory -- unless some prior change had already been made before statehood.
The Missouri Territory was formed from the Louisiana Purchase, which lead to formation of the Louisiana Territory in 1805. In 1812, Louisiana became a state, and remainder of the Louisiana Territory was renamed the Missouri Territory -- which existed until Missouri became a state in 1821.
In 1805, the Louisiana Territory adopted (as a territory) the common law of England existing then. Under English common law, the owner of an animal had an obligation to keep it within its enclosure and, if it was outside the enclosure and caused damage, the owner of the animal was liable.
However, in 1806, the later renamed Missouri Territory adopted the "open range" act which abrogated the common law of England. Under the "open range" act, fences were not used to keep animals within the enclosure -- instead they existed to keep open range animals outside of the landowner's property. Cattle, horses, sheep, and other domestic animals were permitted to run free and, in the event landowners wished to protect their crops, the landowner was required to fence out the open range animals. If the open range animals broke down the fence and destroyed the landowner's crops, the landowner could make a claim against the owner of the animals.
However, there was absolutely no obligation to keep animals within any enclosure under the open range act.
When Missouri became a state in 1821, it did so having specifically abrogated the common law of England by adopting the "open range" act before statehood. Missouri remained an open range state until the 1870's when the forerunner of Chapter 270 and Chapter 272 were adopted. At that point, Missouri became a "closed range" state, in which fences were used to enclose stock, rather than keep it out.
Missouri statutes have been split into two areas of the law -- stock law and fence law. Under Chapter 270, RSMo. (stock law) the owner of an animal is required to keep it within its enclosure and pay damages occasioned by the animal being outside the enclosure. Chapter 270 recognizes that animals are capable of breaking down fences through no fault of the owner, and exempts the owner from liability in such an event.
Chapter 272, RSMo. (fence law), also applies to the owner of animals. If an animal breaks down a lawful fence and trespasses on the lands of another, the damaged landowner has a right of action against the owner of the animal. As with Chapter 270, in Chapter 272 there is no cause of action against the owner of the fence, rather the action is against the owner of the animal.
Liability under both stock law and fence law principles, by definition, applies only to the owner of the animals, not the owner of the land the animals are pastured on, or the owner of the fence through which the animal breaks.
To prove a case under stock law, the Plaintiff must only prove that the Defendant owned stock, that the stock was outside its enclosing fence, and that the Plaintiff was injured or damaged because the stock was outside its enclosure. At that point, the burden of proof shifts to the Defendant to prove the stock was outside the enclosure through no fault of the stock owner.
For example, imagine what would happen if a negligent speeding driver lost control of their vehicle, left the roadway, and ran into the Defendant's field tearing out a section of fence and allowing the Defendant's cattle to move out onto the roadway. Even if the Defendant sees the collision and acts immediately, it still takes time to return the stock to the enclosure and repair the fence.
If the Plaintiff drives on the same road five minutes later, well before the Defendant could reasonably be expected to round up the cattle and repair the fence, and the Plaintiff strikes a steer and is injured -- likely the jury will find that the stock was outside the enclosure through no fault of the Defendant.
Nevertheless, the burden of such proving the animal was outside its enclosure through no fault of the animal owner remains on the Defendant.
Livestock owners should review their insurance coverages with an experienced insurance attorney or agriculture attorney, and make sure their fences are kept in good repair at all times and are inspected regularly. Anyone damaged by livestock being outside its enclosure should consult with a skilled Missouri personal injury attorney.
By: Joseph W. Rigler
DID YOU KNOW ? is presented by Williams, Robinson, Rigler & Buschjost, PC as a public information service only. None of the information contained herein is intended to be taken as legal advice. Each matter depends on unique facts which attorneys must consider in forming an opinion, and may depend on laws unique to a particular jurisdiction. No two cases are the same. If you want to know more about this subject, contact Williams, Robinson, Rigler & Buschjost, PC, or the attorney of your choice, and seek a formal opinion about your particular case.
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