Ohio’s “animals running at large” law may see revision

Bill introduced in Ohio House of Representatives to clarify liability standards

A recurring problem around Ohio may be resolved if H.B. 503 progresses through the General Assembly before the end of the year.  Representatives Bubp (R-88th Dist.) and Garrison (D-93rd Dist.) recently introduced the bill to revise Ohio’s animals at large law.  The proposal clarifies the standards for civil and criminal liability under the law.

The animals running at large law, found in Ohio Revised Code Chapter 951, states that no owner or keeper of  horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, swine, or geese “shall permit” the animals to run at large on public roads or outside of their enclosures.   Many law officers, prosecutors and judges have interpreted the word “shall” as a trigger for automatic liability–if an animal is out, the owner is liable.    But in a case before the Ohio Supreme Court, the court stated that the law does not establish automatic liability.  The court explained that the law creates the duty to exercise ordinary care to keep animals from running at large and sets up a “rebuttable presumption” of liability.   An animal owner whose animals are found running at large has the opportunity to rebut the presumption of liability and prove that he or she exercised ordinary care to contain the animals.  Despite the Supreme Court opinion, animal owners have continued to be subject to prosecution under an automatic liability standard.

H.B. 503 removes the possibility of interpreting the animals at large law as a strict liability law and lays out two different standards for civil and criminal liability.  An owner or keeper of animals who “negligently” permits animals to run at large is liable for all damages caused by the animal, and an owner or keeper who “recklessly” permits animals to run at large is guilty of a fourth degree criminal misdemeanor.  Under Ohio law, “negligence” is the failure to exercise ordinary care, while “recklessness” is acting with indifference to consequences and with disregard to a known risk.

H.B. 503 would alleviate the problems many animal owners in Ohio have faced–potential criminal liability when natural disasters, vandals, pranksters or neighbor disputes, rather than the owner’s action or inaction, caused the release of the animals.   A disturbing increase in such incidents led the Ohio State Bar Association and its Agricultural Law Committee to work with H.B. 503 sponsors to develop the revisions.  View H.B. 503 here.

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