Eric Turkewitz, a celebrated New York personal injury blogger, recently blogged about the case of Hastings v. Suave, in which a cow wandered from a fenced-in pasture into a road at night and caused a car to collide with it, injuring its driver. Eric noted that the Third Department (intermediate appellate court) affirmed dismissal of the case because, under a weird quirk of New York law, an owner of a domestic animal cannot be held liable for negligence in allowing his animal to escape. Rather, he can only be held liable if he knew or should have known the animal had vicious propensities. The Third Department Court was reluctant to dismiss the case, but its hand was forced by existing case law, which clearly requires a finding that the animal was vicious or at least "abnormal". As Eric points out, the law in New York does not recognize a cause of action for negligent failure to restrain a large, but passive, animal such as a cow.
Here's my personal footnote to Eric's great blog post: In upstate New york, where I practice personal injury litigation, there are lots of cows, and some of them invariably stray off into roadways. And I have settled "wandering cow" cases with insurance adjusters for significant money. I recall a case a few years ago where the cow had escaped at night because the dairy farmer had failed to mend a gap in the fence for several weeks. A car collided with the cow, causing injuries to its driver and passengers. The insurance adjuster never even challenged me on liability.
Yes, I know the law. But I also know that most insurance adjusters do not. They simply assume a farmer can be held liable for negligently failing to fence in, leash, or restrain an animal. That's because such a rule makes sense, even if it is not the rule in New york.
Am I acting unethically by presenting such a claim to an insurance adjuster? I am an advocate for my clients. While I am prohibited from filing "frivolous" lawsuits, that is, cases I know have no legal merit, nothing prohibits me from negotiating a settlement with an adjuster who doesn't bother to check out the law.
P.S. to insurance adjusters: Please do not read this blog post.
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