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Ask The Legal Expert: Livestock Security And You

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"I run a livestock farm and I’m concerned about a recent legal case which saw a driver suffer injuries after his car collided with an escaped steer. I do all I can to secure my livestock. Where would I stand if something like this happened to me?"

The case you are referring to, Williams v Hawkes, was heard in the Court of Appeal and is one many farmers will have followed with interest.

Farmer Derfyl Hawkes bought some Charolais steers and let them onto pasture on his farm. The next day, one steer was spooked, jumped a six-foot fence and other obstacles, travelling more than a mile onto a dual carriageway where it was hit by a car. The animal died on impact, with the driver suffering serious injuries.

The driver brought a claim both in negligence and under the Animals Act 1971 against Derfyl Hawkes’ estate.

The judge commented that the care of the animal provided by Derfyl and his son Jeffrey had been "impeccable" and his fencing was "entirely appropriate". It was also accepted that the farmers had carried out sufficient checks on their steers and couldn't’t have predicted the escape. The County Court dismissed the negligence claim.

However, Jeffrey Hawkes, as the representative of his father’s estate, was ordered to pay compensation to the driver as he was strictly liable for damage caused by the steer under section 2 of the Animals Act 1971. The 1971 Act was designed to make the owners of dangerous animals liable for damage, and for this liability to apply where non-dangerous animals exhibit a dangerous characteristic. 

The 1971 Act contains the following three tests which, if met, it will mean you are liable for damage caused even when you are not negligent;

(a)  the animal was, unless restrained, likely to cause damage OR if the animal caused damage, it was likely to be severe; AND (b)  that damage would be caused by a characteristic  EITHER (i) not usually found in that type of animal; or  (ii) only found in that type of animal at particular times and in particular circumstances; and (c) those characteristics were known to the keeper.

Rejecting Mr Hawkes's appeal, Lord Justice Davis said liability under the Act did not require proof of negligence. He found that the steer displayed behaviour that would only be shown by cattle ‘in particular circumstances’. This was supported by an expert, who told the court that being near a major road, with its lights and noise, was likely to make any cattle unpredictable.

The three linked requirements above had, in this case, been satisfied. But farmers should be aware that the strict liability test is complex and there are defences to it. Getting sound advice early is critical.

JCP’s Rural Practice team is on hand for tailored and professional legal support.

For further advice, please contact our specialist Rural Practice solicitors in:

  • Swansea: 01792 773773
  • Cardiff: 02920 225472
  • Carmarthen: 01267 234022
  • Caerphilly: 02920 860628
  • Cowbridge: 01446 771742
  • Haverfordwest: 01437 764723
  • Fishguard: 01348 873671

The question posed is based upon a hypothetical situation.