Friday, April 12, 2019
The negligence concept is the great workhorse of tort law. To be liable for a negligent tort, the defendant's conduct must have fallen below that of a “reasonable and prudent person” under the circumstances. A reasonable and prudent person is what a jury has in mind when they measure an individual's conduct in retrospect - after the fact, when the case is in court.
But, what is a reasonable and prudent farmer? What is a farmer presumed to have knowledge of? These are important questions when the issue is negligence.
The reasonably prudent farmer – it’s the topic of today’s post.
Negligence – In General
More than 90 percent of all civil liability problems relate to negligence. The negligence system is a system designed to provide compensation to those who suffer personal injury or property damage. The negligence system is a fault system. For a person to be deemed legally negligent, certain conditions must exist. These conditions can be thought of as links in a chain. Each condition must be present before a finding of negligence can be obtained.
The first condition is that of a legal duty giving rise to a standard of care. If a legal duty exists, it is necessary to determine whether the defendant's conduct fell short of the conduct of a “reasonable and prudent person (or professional) under the circumstances.” This is called a breach, and is the second element of a negligent tort case. Once a legal duty and breach of that duty are shown to exist, a causal connection (the third element) must be established between the defendant's act and (the fourth element) the plaintiff's injuries (whether to person or property). In other words, the resulting harm to the plaintiff must have been a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant's conduct at the time the conduct occurred. Reasonable foreseeability is the essence of causality (also known as proximate cause). For a plaintiff to prevail in a negligence-type tort case, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof to all four elements by a preponderance of the evidence (just over 50 percent).
The “Reasonably Prudent” Standard
The conduct of a particular tortfeasor (the one causing the tort) who is not held out as a professional is compared with the mythical standard of conduct of the reasonable and prudent person in terms of judgment, knowledge, perception, experience, skill, physical, mental and emotional characteristics as well as age and sanity. For those held out as having the knowledge, skill, experience or education of a professional, the standard of care reflects those factors. For example, the standard applicable to a professional veterinarian in diagnosing or treating animals is what a reasonable and prudent veterinarian would have done under the circumstances, not what a reasonable and prudent person would do.
The issue of what a farmer is presumed to know was at issue in a recent case. In Perkins v. Fillio, No. 18A-PL-2278, 2019 Ind. App. LEXIS 73 (Ind. Ct. App. Feb. 19, 2019), the defendant owned a small farm where she kept various animals including sheep and goats. The defendant spent roughly half her time at the farm and half her time in Florida. In 2016, the defendant was in Florida and left her half-brother (Slate) in charge of caring for her animals while she was gone, including feeding and watering them. While the defendant was in Florida, one of the goats (a ram) got sick, and because Slate had little experience with farm animals, he contacted a neighbor, the plaintiff, to come and help with the sick goat.
As the plaintiff bent over the ill goat head-butted her, causing her to fall and break her arm/wrist. The plaintiff then sued the defendant on three theories of negligence; premises liability, negligent entrustment and/or supervision, and vicarious liability. Under Indiana law, tort liability based on negligence requires that the defendant owe a plaintiff a duty; that the duty was breached; and that the plaintiff was injured as a result of the breach of the duty. At issue were whether a duty existed and whether the defendant had violated that duty. The plaintiff presented expert testimony to show that rams are generally territorial and tend to defend themselves, their territory, and the females that they perceive to be in their herd by headbutting unfamiliar animals or persons, and that tendency is generally known by farmers. The plaintiff claimed that when she went into the pen to care for the sick goat, she did not realize it was a ram because it had no horns, and she had never been warned that a ram might be protective and territorial.
Both parties moved for summary judgment on the liability question, and the trial court found in favor of the defendant because, in part, there was a lack of evidence indicating that the defendant knew the plaintiff would be on her real estate and, in particular, be inside the pen where the defendant kept the ram. There was also no evidence that the ram had been aggressive toward anyone in the past. Accordingly, the trial court found that the defendant had not violated a duty of care to the plaintiff. The plaintiff appealed.
On the premises liability question, the appellate court found that a duty to protect against harm caused by domestic animals could be established by either (1) a defendant’s knowledge that a particular animal has a propensity for violence and/or (2) a defendant’s ownership of a member of a class of animals that are known to have dangerous propensities, as the owner of such an animal is bound to have knowledge of that potential danger. The appellate court held that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to establish that rams have dangerous tendencies as a class of animals, and the defendant was bound to have knowledge of that propensity. This evidence was enough to create a genuine issue of fact as to whether the defendant took reasonable measures to prevent the ram from causing harm to invitees, such as the plaintiff. Based on this standard, the appellate court held that the trial court had erred in granting summary judgment on the premise liability issue.
However, the plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to the remaining theories of negligence, and therefore the appellate court did not reverse on those rulings. Accordingly, the appellate court remanded to the trial court for further proceedings on the issue of premises liability.
Farmers have a great deal of skill and knowledge in many matters. For conduct that falls below the standard or reasonableness for a prudent farmer, tort liability may apply. That standard is difficult to determine and depends on the facts of each particular case. In the recent Indiana case, the farmer, even though part-time but as a keeper of animals (including sheep and goats) was presumed to know of the tendency of rams to butt.
Think through how the reasonably prudent person standard might apply in your situation.