Farmers need to be aware of the potential liability which comes with grazing livestock, and, in particular, cattle on fields accessible to the public. It is not uncommon for walkers, especially those with dogs, to be the victim of unwanted interest, and sometimes aggression, from grazing animals. There have been several high profile incidents of cows, no doubt protecting their calves, inflicting very serious injuries on walkers. Some of these injuries have been fatal. Even our former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, was seriously hurt when cows trampled him whilst he was out walking with his guide dog in the Peak District.
Farmers not only face the risk of a criminal prosecution by the Health & Safety Executive if their animals injure someone, but also face the serious risk of a personal injury claim being brought by the injured party.
The case of McKaskie v Cameron is a good example of how the courts can deal with such incidents. Shirley McKaskie was out walking with her dog one evening. She walked though a field in which a herd of cattle with young calves were grazing. As she was leaving the field, the cows attacked, leaving her with serious skeletal and brain damage. Shirley McKaskie brought a claim against Mr Cameron, the landowner, in negligence. Shirley McKaskie alleged that Mr Cameron was in breach of his obligations under the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957. The judge found convincingly for Shirley McKaskie despite the fact that she had deviated from the footpath, and was therefore technically a trespasser, and that the defence had alleged that she had understood the risks that the cattle posed to her.
In this case, the Judge ruled that Mr Cameron was liable in negligence for not having considered properly the risks that his cattle posed to members of the public and for failing to notify walkers of the dangers which the cows posed. He also found that Mr Cameron was liable under the Occupiers’ Liability Act.
Farmers will read with concern that the judge in this case, his Honour Judge Howarth, was largely unsympathetic to their predicament. He remarked that footpaths should be fenced off or that potentially dangerous livestock should be grazed elsewhere. Shirley McKaskie was awarded an interim payment of £250,000.00 with full damages potentially running to £1,000,000.00.
What can farmers do to reduce the risks of claims of this type being brought? The obvious answer is, as far as possible, to graze potentially dangerous animals away from footpaths. This may not, of course, be practical, and on occasion humans and cows will need to mix. In those circumstances, the best advice is to make sure that all steps have been taken to warn walkers of the danger so that they can make an informed decision. A well-worded and proportionate sign can be of great value. Farmers do, however, have to be very careful not to ‘warn off’ walkers, as posting false or misleading statements likely to deter the public from using a right of way is a criminal offence under the provisions of the National Parks and Countryside Act 1949.
Good signage and common sense decisions regarding the positioning of cattle help considerably, but all landowners would be well-advised to make sure that they are adequately insured to provide them with some protection against claims of this type.