UPDATES & ANALYSIS

2.08

Iowa Supreme Court: It is not enough to say that a cow does not belong on a highway

by Rox Laird | February 8, 2024

Was it enough for a truck driver who struck a cow on the interstate, seeking to prove the cow’s owner was negligent, to rely upon the very fact that the cow had been allowed to wander onto the highway in the first place?

Not without more, the Iowa Supreme Court said in a decision handed down Feb. 2. Since at least since 1897, the Iowa Supreme Court has said Iowa law does not presume negligence unless a duty of care has been established and that duty was breached. In this case, the Court said in a unanimous decision written by Justice David May, the truck driver failed to offer sufficient evidence that the cow’s owner was negligent under those standards.

Simranjit Singh was driving a semi-trailer truck on Interstate-80 in western Iowa in the early morning hours when he struck a cow belonging to Michael McDermott that had wandered onto the highway. Singh sued McDermott for negligence. [Go to On Brief’s “Updates & Analysis” to read our earlier post on this case.]

McDermott argued that Singh failed to offer evidence that the presence of the cow on the highway was due to McDermott’s negligence. Singh countered that McDermott’s “negligence lies in the undisputed fact that the cow strayed onto I-80 in the middle of the night and was unattended” when Singh’s truck hit it.

The Cass County District Court agreed with McDermott and dismissed the case on summary judgment. Singh appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which transferred the case to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court. On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed both the district court and Court of Appeals rulings.

A question at the heart of the case, the Court said, is the duty of care owed by owners of livestock under Iowa law. For much of the 20th century, Iowa farmers had a statutory duty to restrain animals under a “fencing in” statute enacted in 1924, which the Court had read as meaning that the mere presence of an animal on the highway was prima facie evidence of the owner’s negligence.

That statute was repealed in 1994, and questions of the duty of care owed by livestock farmers are governed by common law. That duty was articulated in a jury instruction in a 1922 case cited by the Supreme Court: “If the ordinary, careful, and prudent farmer puts his horse in a barn and shuts and latches the doors thereto, or puts it in the yard properly fenced and properly closes and secures the gates, then that would be ordinary care.”

In the present case, Justice May wrote, “We think a similar duty of ordinary care was owed by McDermott.” With the repeal of the “fencing in” statute, however, the prima facie evidence rule does not apply, and Singh was obligated to present evidence that McDermott breached that duty. And no direct or circumstantial evidence – such as an unmended fence, or broken gate, or that the cow was in fact on McDermott’s property that night – was presented to show that McDermott was negligent.

Sigh argued the cow could only have escaped if McDermott negligently allowed the cow out, perhaps by failing to close the gate, but the Court said that assumes that “in the ordinary course of things” cows cannot escape an adequate fence after the owner has properly closed the gate. Noting that another court observed that cattle and other domestic animals can escape from perfectly adequate confines, May wrote that “the probability of cow escapes” is not something within the general experience of most potential jurors.

Thus, he wrote, a jury would need the assistance of expert testimony to reach that conclusion. “Here, the record contains no expert testimony or other evidence that ‘in the ordinary course of things,’ the cow would not have escaped ‘if reasonable care had been used’ by McDermott.”

 

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December 2023 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in fourteen cases during December 2023. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of State v. Geddes, State v. Arrieta, Harding v. Sasso, and Hummel v. Smith and Hilts v. Smith. The remaining opinions from December are summarized below.

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