Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What’s My Liability for Spread of Animal Disease?


One issue that I occasionally receive questions on concerns liability for animal disease.  The questions can take several forms, including diseased animals of the owner as well as another person’s diseased animals that cause an infection. 

Given that animal disease can result in significant economic loss, the liability question is an important one.  Today’s post takes a brief look at the issue.

Trespassing or Straying Animals

If an owner of diseased animals knows of an infection and knows that it would be communicated to other animals if contracted, some states hold the owner liable for damages caused by transmission of the disease.  Knowledge that the animals were infected is typically an essential element.  Once the animals' owner has knowledge of the disease, the owner is under a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that the animals do not come into contact with healthy, uninfected livestock of anyone else.  Knowledge that the animals were infected is typically an essential element.  Several states, by statute, require restraint of animals that are known to have an infectious or contagious disease from running at large or coming into contact with other animals.  These statutes have been enacted by the major livestock producing states.

The injured party may be barred from recovering damages if the complaining party is contributorily negligent.  Knowledge that animals running at large were infected coupled with the complainant's failure to attempt to prevent the infected animal from coming in contact with the complainant's own animals may preclude recovery. Moreover, allowing infected animals to remain on the complaining party's premises after being aware of their diseased condition may be a bar to damages.

Landlord's Duty Regarding Diseased Premises

Sometimes questions arise concerning a landlord's liability for diseased or contaminated premises when a tenant brings healthy animals to the premises.  In most jurisdictions, the liability of the landlord depends largely upon the landlord's deceit to the tenant concerning the past presence of disease on the premises. Thus, if a tenant has healthy animals and brings those animals onto the landlord's diseased or contaminated premises and the animals become diseased themselves, it will be difficult for the tenant to recover against the landlord.  Failure to disclose the diseased condition of the leased premises is usually not a basis for action. Instead, actual deceit is required.  Therefore, if the tenant fails to ask whether the premises are disease or contamination free, the landlord is under no duty to disclose that fact to the tenant.  However, if the tenant asks and the landlord responds less than fully or less than truthfully, actual deceit may be present and provide the tenant a basis for recovery.  See, e.g., Wilcox v. Cappel, No. A-95-798, 1996 Neb. App. LEXIS 243 (Neb. Ct. App. Dec. 3, 1996). 

For farm tenants that claim that the landlord’s premises caused damage to the tenant’s animals, the law is fairly clear.  As a prerequisite for recovering damages against a landlord arising from defects in the leased premises, the tenant should make a thorough inspection of the property and ask questions.  It is also a really good idea to reduce the lease agreement to writing and include in the lease a provision that specifies which party is liable for damages resulting from disease or contamination.

Disposal of Animal Carcasses

All states have statutory requirements that must be satisfied in order to properly dispose of a dead animal.  In most states, disposal must occur within 24 hours after death. By statute, states typically acknowledge that disposal may be by burying, burning or feeding the carcass to other livestock.  The option of feeding the carcass to other livestock is typically only available if the animal did not die of a contagious disease.  Disposal is also usually available to a licensed rendering company.  The typical state statute requires direct delivery to the point of disposal with an exception often made for stops to load additional carcasses.  Vehicles used to transport the carcass of an animal typically must be lined or other measures taken to prevent any leakage of liquid, and must be disinfected after each transport.

Most states prohibit certain methods of dead animal disposal.  For instance, placing the carcass of dead animal in a water course or roadway is a misdemeanor in many states.  Similarly, knowingly allowing a carcass to remain in such an area is also typically a misdemeanor.  But, in most jurisdictions, cattle and horse carcasses may be moved from one farm to another if they are not diseased.


Animal diseases are a natural aspect of livestock production activities.  Knowing the liability issues that might arise is an important aspect of livestock risk management.

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