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Horse on the highway! Who is liable?


Barker’s horse bolted through an open gate on Matchett’s farm and ran onto the highway. A car hit the horse, then careened into Gromer’s car, injuring Gromer, who filed a lawsuit in Butler County, Missouri.

Gromer settled with the other driver and Barker before the trial. Then Gromer convinced a jury that Matchett should be at least partly responsible. He owned the farm with the open gate where Barker boarded his horse.

Missouri’s Stock Law, section 270.101 RSMo, makes a person whose livestock gets onto a highway responsible for damages, unless the owner can prove that the animal was outside the fence for some other reason than the negligence of the owner. Missouri’s appellate court has ruled that negligence does not have to be proved by the plaintiff; negligence may be inferred “from the fact that the animal was loose on the road.”

Lack of negligence is an affirmative defense, which means that the defendant has the burden of proof on this point. Unless the defendant could prove that he exercised reasonable care, he could be liable, and the plaintiff would not have to address the issue of the defendant’s negligence.

Gromer argued that the Stock Law applied to Matchett, because he was the owner of the farm with the open gate. Over Matchett’s objection, the judge instructed the jury that it must assess a percentage of fault to Matchett if he was in possession of the horse when it escaped onto a public highway.

The issue on appeal is whether a person who is in possession of an animal is liable for damages caused by the loose animal, even though the animal belongs to someone else.

The Southern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals held otherwise in Gromer v. Matchett, in a decision released July 30, 2010.

In reviewing other appellate opinions applying the Stock Law, the Court of Appeals found that the distinction between ownership and possession was not the decisive issue in these cases, because the owners were in possession or the defendant was neither an owner or possessor.

The Court of Appeals looked to how the word “owner” has been interpreted in other contexts, noting that a dictionary definition indicates that “own” and “possess” are often used to mean the same thing. But in legal settings, ownership and possession are not the same. An owner has the right to possess, but so does someone who rents a car, who is clearly not the car’s owner.

Eventually, the Court of Appeals concluded that it could not “read into the statute a legislative intent that is contrary to its plain and ordinary meaning.” The jury verdict was reversed and the case sent back for a new trial. The Stock Law would not apply to Matchett. To win, Gromer would have to prove that Matchett was negligent in allowing the horse to escape.

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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

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