Farmers Weekly’s Business Clinic experts offer free advice on legal, finance, tax, insurance, farm management and land issues. Here Jon Grimster – claims specialist at NFU Mutual – advises on farmers’ liability when farm animals cause injury to a member of the public.
Q: Someone left the gate open to one of my fields that has a well-used public footpath. My cattle strayed onto the road and there was an accident.
One of the people involved was badly hurt and will need long-term care. They are claiming from me for the care and their car, which was written off. However, I did not leave the gate open
The field is well-fenced, there are signs to alert people to the stock and the need to close the gate, and the gate is well maintained and in good working order, so surely I cannot be liable?
Also, two of my cattle had to be put down as a result of the accident. Will my insurance pay or should I claim from the owner of the car that hit them?
A: There are sadly several cases of straying livestock leading to accidents involving deaths and life-threatening injuries. These accidents can lead to claims against farmers, with damages potentially running into millions of pounds.
Claims specialist, NFU Mutual
Farmers can protect themselves from the potential huge costs of an incident like this by taking out public liability insurance.
While this is not a legal requirement, it can be provided under farm insurance policies, although you may need to request it.
Farmers should regularly review their level of cover to make sure it reflects the potential risk for the type and size of business.
If a serious accident like this occurs, insurers require policyholders to inform them immediately. This enables the insurance company to appoint a solicitor to represent the policyholder and gather evidence such as photographs and statements from witnesses.
The insurer will then form a view as to whether liability is likely to lie with the farmer or whether any claim can be challenged – if necessary in court.
In the circumstances described, the insurer will look at legal liability, considering whether the claim will be pursued under negligence or under the Animals Act.
For negligence to be proven, there must be sufficient evidence that the cattle escaped due to poor risk maintenance on your part.
For example, if the gate was left open by someone unknown to you, but you could prove that you had carried out all the appropriate checks, could provide maintenance records to show you maintained the gate, and that signs warning the public to keep the gate closed were in view, then it is difficult to see how a claim would succeed under negligence.
This type of accident illustrates the importance of being able to demonstrate that you have operated good risk management. To defend a claim successfully, a farmer would need to provide evidence of:
- Regular risk assessments
- Selection of fences and gates suitable for a field adjoining a public road with public footpath access
- Maintenance schedules
- How often livestock checks are carried out
- Any previous straying incidents
However, if the gate had been left open and the cattle were “spooked”, causing them to run out of the gate, then the claim could be dealt with under the Animals Act – for which there are limited defences in law. Generally speaking, if a court accepts a claim under the Animals Act, the policyholder would be liable.
The loss of the two cattle could be claimed for under cover for death of livestock as a result of straying, if optional cover for straying risks has been taken as part of the farm’s business insurance.
On the evidence available, it seems unlikely the car driver could be held liable for the accident. It also seems unlikely that the person who left the gate open could be traced and held liable for damages.
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