Farmers' liability - injuries caused by livestock

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02 October 2009

Injuries caused by livestock on land crossed by a public footpath

The recent case of McKaskie v Cameron, in which a farmer was been ordered to pay substantial damages to a woman attacked by cattle on his land, has raised concerns about farmers' liability to members of the public.

Miss McKaskie was walking her dog along a public footpath across farmland. One of the fields crossed by the footpath contained a herd of cows with calves at foot. The calves were aged between five and nine months. The cows attacked Miss McKaskie who suffered severe and permanent injuries. The farmer was order to pay damages that are yet to be assessed, although a figure of around £1 million has been reported in the press.

The farmer's liability rested on two separate grounds. First, he had breached his duty of care to Miss McKaskie. Members of the public who use public rights of way across farmland are treated in the same way as "visitors", under the Occupiers' Liability Act 1957, and so the landowner has a duty to see that they are reasonably safe. Secondly, the farmer was liable under the Animals Act 1971 because he knew that his cattle, although not usually dangerous, could become aggressive when they have calves at foot.

It was recognised that the fact that Miss McKaskie was accompanied by her dog could have contributed to the cows' aggression, but the judge said that the mere act of walking across a field in which cattle are grazing, even if accompanied by a dog on a lead, does not carry any inherent or obvious danger. Miss McKaskie was absolved of any responsibility for what happened.

In this case, the judge looked at the options open to a farmer to avoid liability. He was clear that each case must be assessed on this own facts. Interestingly, in this case he found that if the farmer had put up signs warning of the cattle, that would not have been enough to discharge his duty to Miss McKaskie. Signage is difficult in the case of public rights of way as any warning must not have the effect of discouraging walkers from using the footpath. Instead, the judge found that the farmer should either have fenced off the public footpath from the rest of the field or moved the livestock to a field not crossed by the footpath.

The McKaskie judgment is only a first instance decision and may be subject to appeal. This means that it does not a binding decision, although it may be persuasive in similar cases.

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