UPDATES & ANALYSIS

10.13

Question before Iowa Supreme Court: Is it enough to say a cow does not belong on a highway?

by Rox Laird | October 13, 2023

A driver whose vehicle collides with a cow wandering on a highway might logically assume the owner of the cow is, by definition, responsible for the driver’s injuries and damage to the vehicle. By that logic, the injured driver shouldn’t have to provide evidence of precisely how the owner failed to prevent the cow’s meandering.

That is how Simranjit Singh saw things after his semi tractor-trailer struck a black cow on Interstate 80 at 2 o’clock in the morning, resulting in $44,094.94 personal injuries to Singh and damage to his truck. And so he argued in a suit against Michael McDermott, the owner of the cow, that McDermott was negligent and McDermott’s negligence speaks for itself.

The question of whether Singh, in order to collect damages against McDermott, must prove more than just the fact that the cow did not belong on the interstate will be addressed in oral arguments before the Iowa Supreme Court at 7 p.m. Oct. 24 in Marion at the Marion High School Auditorium, 675 South 15th St. in Marion. [Go to On Brief’s “Cases in the Pipeline” page to read briefs filed in this case.]

Singh appealed his case to the Iowa Supreme Court after the Cass County District Court dismissed his suit on summary judgment. The case was transferred to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court. Singh applied to the Supreme Court for further review of the Court of Appeals ruling.

In dismissing Singh’s suit, the district court cited a 2004 Iowa Supreme Court ruling saying a plaintiff must produce at least a minimum amount of evidence that a defendant breached the duty of care besides the presence of a cow in the road.

“Any findings a fact-finder would need to make as to why the cow ended up in the road would just be speculation,” the trial judge wrote: “was the fence inadequate? was a gate unlatched? or, as it was suggested at the hearing, did the cow leap over the fence? While the Defendant did provide pictures of the fencing on his property, the Defendant nor any other expert was deposed to testify as to the adequacy of that fencing for that animal. Without the Plaintiff providing any evidence to generate a genuine question of material fact, the elements for negligence cannot be met and the claim must fail.”

The Court of Appeals, in its June 21 ruling, agreed. The Court of Appeals reasoned that Singh cannot rely on the argument that McDermott’s negligence speaks for itself just because the cow was unattended on the highway rather than being properly confined. That’s because a cow “may come to be on a roadway without any act of negligence necessarily bringing it there,” the court said.

“Although injuries could reasonably be expected if a cow roamed the highway and the ordinary care should therefore be exercised with a goal of keeping animals off of the roadway,” the Court of Appeals said, “the duty itself is to use ordinary care in harboring the animal. In contrast, Singh’s approach would impose a duty to keep livestock off of the highway so that a cow’s presence on a highway, regardless of how it came to be there, would constitute breach of duty. We find no authority for Singh’s method, which would effectively be an application of strict liability.”

 

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February 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in eighteen cases during February 2024. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of Singh v. McDermott, Selden v. DMACC, and Senator Roby Smith et al. v. Iowa District Court for Polk County. The remaining opinions from February are summarized here.

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