Key Decisions

June 2012 – Ranch Owner Had No Duty

(filed under: | June 16, 2012)

Other Cases Of Interest

A Ranch Owner Had No Duty To Prevent Cattle From Going Onto A Private Roadway On An Easement Across The Ranch

Thomas v. Stenberg
(Cal. Ct. of App., 1st Dist.), filed May 29, 2012 

Nelson Thomas was injured when he was charged and hit by a cow while his motorcycle was stopped on a private road that ran across the Stenbergs’ ranch. The road was on an easement across the Stenbergs’ property and belonged to persons other than the Stenbergs. The cow was not of a particularly aggressive breed and there had been no prior incidents of cows charging passersby.

The trial court granted the Stenbergs’ motion for nonsuit and entered judgment in their favor. It did so based on its finding that the Stenbergs did not owe Thomas a duty of care. The trial court noted that it had been unable to find any legal duty on the part of a landowner to construct a fence in this context, particularly in the absence of any prior event that would have alerted the property owner to the need to undertake such a measure.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. It concurred with the trial court that under the circumstances, the Stenbergs did not owe Thomas a duty of care.

The court considered the standards for the imposition of a duty of care, saying:

“[D]uty” is not an immutable fact of nature but only an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the particular plaintiff is entitled to protection. Some of the considerations that courts have employed in various contexts to determine the existence and scope of duty are: ‘the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach, and the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.’

Thomas did not directly address this analysis. Instead, he made three arguments as to why the Stenbergs should be liable.

First, Thomas argued that as owners of the easement, the Stenbergs should be liable to those injured while using it. The court rejected this argument, noting that while the Stenbergs owned the land on which the easement ran, they did not own the easement. Others owned the easement.

Next, Thomas argued that the Stenbergs should be liable as the owners of dangerous animals. The court noted: “Plaintiff next correctly notes that a keeper of an animal of a species that is dangerous by nature, or that a keeper knows or has reason to know has dangerous propensities or traits, may be found strictly liable to anyone injured as a result of those propensities or traits.” However, it rejected Thomas’ argument because there was no evidence cows are dangerous by nature or that the Stenbergs knew the cow had dangerous propensities. It noted: “Not surprisingly, plaintiff does not cite to any cases holding that Angus cows have an inherently dangerous nature, and our research has disclosed no such cases. In fact, relevant cases state the opposite.”

Finally, Thomas argued the Stenbergs had a duty under Food and Agricultural Code section 16904 to keep the road clear. The court rejected this argument because the particular road was a private road on an easement through the Stenbergs’ land. It noted that the owners of the easement, who were other than the Stenbergs, had never seen a need to erect a fence to keep grazing cattle off of the road.