Court: Wandering cows' owner can be sued

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ALBANY -- The owners of wandering cows and the landowners responsible for keeping them fenced can be sued for negligence if the meandering livestock get involved in an accident, New York's highest court ruled yesterday.

The Court of Appeals reversed lower courts, which had applied the usual liability test for injuries by domestic animals, such as dogs or even aggressive bulls -- whether the owner or landowner knew of the animal's vicious tendencies.

The six judges concluded the broader standard of common law negligence applies in Karen Hastings' case -- she was injured when her van hit a cow on a public road -- and they reinstated her personal injury lawsuit.

Under simple negligence, Hastings would have to prove the owner or landowner was negligent in keeping the cow off the road.

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Hastings was driving at night in September 2007 when her van hit a black cow on County Route 53 in North Bangor, near the Canadian border, according to court papers. The animal had escaped from a fenced pasture on the farm of Laurier Sauve, who let others keep cattle there.

Lower courts rejected Hastings' claims against Sauve as well as William Delarm and Albert Williams, presumed owners of the cow, applying the strict liability standard for domestic animals that inflict injuries. The lawsuit was sent back to the lower courts yesterday, with those rulings reversed.

"There was evidence that the fence separating Sauve's property from the road was overgrown and in bad repair," Judge Robert Smith wrote. "In this case, while a number of important facts are disputed, the record read most favorably to the plaintiffs would support a finding that any or all of the three defendants were negligent in allowing the cow to enter the roadway."

Hastings' attorney Matthew McArdle said he expects the ruling to have a wide effect. "While my case was pending I got calls from attorneys all over the state representing clients that had significant injuries including death as a result of farm animals being in the roadway," he said.

McArdle had argued that case law from the 1800s, with a presumption of owner negligence from a wandering horse or cow, had never been overruled, though courts more recently had applied the other standard.

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