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Reduce your exposure to liability for escaped animals

By Connie S. Haden, The Law Firm of Haden & Haden

Missouri’s fence law has a long and complicated history starting in the days before statehood.  Missouri’s first fence law, passed in 1808, required farmers to fence their neighbors’ livestock out if they wanted to protect their own crops and homesteads. But over the course of the following two centuries, Missouri’s fence law has changed multiple times and evolved to require livestock owners to fence their animals in.

The Structure of Missouri Fence Law

The last major revision to Missouri’s fence law occurred in 2001 when the General Assembly voted to essentially establish two fence laws for the state: the general fence law and the “local option” fence law. The general fence law is the default law for Missouri, and applies everywhere in the state, except in those counties where the county commission has specifically adopted the “local option.” 

The general fence law states that a landowner without livestock is not required to share the costs of building or maintaining a fence on a common property line with a landowner who does have livestock. However, the law still requires that if both adjoining property owners have livestock, each landowner is responsible for maintaining the right half of the fence as viewed from their own property. If a landowner builds a fence on a common property line with a landowner who does not have livestock, reports the total cost of the fence to the circuit judge (who will authorize this cost to be recorded on the neighbor’s deed), and then the neighboring landowner later has livestock against that fence, the landowner who built the fence can get reimbursed for half of the cost of building the fence.  Under the general fence law, a fence must be at least four feet high, have four strands of wire or boards, and have posts not more than 12 feet apart to be considered a legal fence. 

In contrast, the “local option” fence law requires landowners to maintain half of any interior fence regardless of whether the landowner has livestock.  The law does not specify which portion of the fence each adjoining landowner must maintain, but the right-hand rule is the local custom throughout most of Missouri.  Under the “local option” fence law, a legal fence must meet the same qualifications as required under the general law, or alternatively, a fence is legal if it is at least four feet high with posts no more than 15 feet apart, and with a wire or wood stay placed over the strands at the center point between each post.  As of this year, the local option is in effect in Bates, Cedar, Clinton, Daviess, Gentry, Grundy, Harrison, Knox, Linn, Macon, Mercer, Newton, Putnam, Schuyler, Scotland, Shelby, St. Clair, Sullivan and Worth Counties.

Liability for Escaped Animals

Two other significant changes have been made to Missouri's fence law and the related laws governing loose animals in recent years.  In 2013, Missouri law was amended to reduce the criminal penalties to livestock owners for animal trespass. Prior to the 2013 change, animal owners whose stock escaped could be criminally charged under the animal cruelty statute even if the escaped livestock was healthy and well-fed.  Stock owners faced jail time of up to one year and fines of up to $1000.  The 2013 change helped livestock owners by reducing punishments for animal trespass, making a first time charge an infraction similar to a speeding ticket, and reducing the maximum fine and jail time for any subsequent offense to 30 days and $500.

A second important change came in 2016 when the General Assembly amended Missouri’s fence law to ease the standard of liability imposed on livestock owners for damages caused by escaped animals. Prior to the 2016 change, Missouri’s longstanding rule held livestock owners strictly liable for any injuries caused by animals that crossed interior division fences.  In practice, this meant that livestock owners were responsible for damages caused by their stock regardless of the circumstances under which the animal escaped, including cases in which fences were knocked down by unforeseen acts of God or even by the intentional acts of third parties. After the 2016 amendment, an injured party must now show that a livestock owner was negligent in maintaining control over their animal before they may recover for an injury caused by the animal.

Practical Guidance

While these changes in the law are welcome for livestock producers, they do not eliminate all potential liability for escaped animals, and it is still important for ranchers to exercise diligence in maintaining fences and controlling animals.  Fortunately, minimizing your liability doesn’t have to be a complicated process.  Consider the following steps to reduce your exposure to liability for escaped animals:

  1. Check your fences regularly.  It’s a simple step that goes a long way towards preventing big problems with your neighbors.
  2. Communicate with your neighbors and make sure you are on good terms with them. Make sure they know you have animals and give them your contact information so that they can let you know if you have escapees.  If you decide on an agreement for repair and maintenance of fences that is different from the general fence law (or local option law, depending on your county), you must get this agreement in writing and record it in the county where the real estate is located.  You should consult an attorney to be sure the agreement is properly drafted and enforceable.  
  3. Get to know your local law enforcement officers. The local sheriff’s department often gets the first call when an animal escapes, having a relationship in place can help smooth the process and ensure you are notified quickly.
  4. Carry adequate liability insurance There are no guarantees when it comes to animal behavior, and even if you are diligent, there may be escapes and accidents.  Adequate insurance can help cover the unforeseen things that happen to even the most careful rancher.
  5. Be ready to act. Make a plan to retrieve animals that escape before you have an emergency, and let your family and employees know their role in the case of an escape.

With a little bit of preparation, you can minimize the risk of liability for damages caused by your animals. Investing the time now to establish relationships with your neighbors and strengthen your fence lines will go a long way toward protecting your farm for the future.

Written by Connie S. Haden, attorney-at-law at The Law Firm of Haden & Colbert. Connie practices in the areas of estate and business planning, trust and probate administration, elder law and tax-exempt and non-profit organizations. Prior to starting her own firm, she practiced with Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin LLP, specializing in complex estate, business, gift and tax planning issues. These views do not necessarily represent those of FCS Financial.

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