A Pennsylvania judge has declined to impose strict liability on the owner of a cow that entered a Pennsylvania highway and was struck by a man's car, resulting in injury to a passenger, the driver's spouse.
Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas Judge J. Craig Cox's ruling means that William Lefebvre will remain an additional defendant after he and his wife, Janice Lefebvre, sued Frank Bielak, whose cow ventured onto Pennsylvania Route 168 in Hickory Township before colliding with the couple's car.
According to Cox's opinion, the car struck the cow, causing injuries to Janice Lefebvre and damage to William Lefebvre's car. Janice Lefebvre sued for negligence and William Lefebvre lodged claims of loss of consortium and property damage.
Bielak responded to the lawsuit by filing a cross-claim, adding William Lefebvre as a defendant and claiming it was the husband's negligence that was a proximate cause. Bielak made claims William Lefebvre failed to travel at a safe speed, violated the clear-distance-ahead doctrine and did not control his vehicle to avoid objects that might have been in his way.
In the alternative, Bielak said William Lefebvre was at least jointly and severally liable for Janice Lefebvre's injuries and for the damages to his own car.
The judge declined to grant a motion for summary judgment filed by William Lefebvre, leaving the man as both a plaintiff and additional defendant in the case.
Lefebvre v. Bielak presented an issue — the imposition of strict liability on the owner of livestock for injuries arising out of a vehicle-livestock collision — where there is a lack of case law. According to Cox, courts have only extended strict liability to situations when an animal ventures off its owner's property and causes damage to a neighbor's property under the state's Fence Law.
"The case law indicates that strict liability is to be enforced upon an owner of livestock when that livestock trespasses upon and causes damage to property owned by another person," Cox said.
"Only when the owner of livestock fails to exercise due care will the courts impose liability upon the owner for injuries arising from a motor vehicle collision with livestock standing on a roadway," Cox later added in his eight-page opinion.
Cox borrowed his analysis from a Pennsylvania Superior Court case that came down when most Americans didn't own cars, Tassoni v. LeBoutillier, which the frontline appeals court decided in 1937.
In Tassoni, which was an automobile-horse collision, the defendant left his horse unattended before it ran more than a mile and was struck by the plaintiff's motor vehicle.
The plaintiff sued, seeking to recover for damages to his car, and the trial judge granted a compulsory nonsuit.
On appeal, the Superior Court reversed, holding that the owner of an animal is supposed to have knowledge of the likelihood that the animal will stray and, accordingly, exercise ordinary care to ensure the animal does not stray.
But the Tassoni court required the plaintiff to present evidence that his opponent was negligent, which he did, according to Cox. In other words, the court declined to extend strict liability to motor vehicle-livestock collisions.
William Lefebvre had cited Tassoni and Fogle v. Malvern Courts, a 1999 state Supreme Court ruling, in arguing that strict liability should attach. In Fogle, however, according to Cox, the justices recognized the Fence Law's purpose was to provide for the containment of livestock that could damage neighbors' properties. Furthermore, the court acknowledged that the common law set forth a rule of strict liability for any damages caused by animals if they make their way onto another property-owner's land.
Cox said there are issues of fact remaining as to whether William Lefebvre was negligent for his wife's injuries along with the damage to his car.
The same goes for whether Bielak was negligent for failing to confine his cow.
Douglas J. Olcott, of the Dallas W. Hartman law firm, was listed as the plaintiffs' attorney and did not return a call requesting comment.
Erie, Pa., attorney William J. Kelly Jr. represented Bielak and did not return a call.
Daniel J. Sammel was listed as William Lefebvre's counsel as additional defendant. Sammel said he was no longer on the case. The attorney Sammel said took over as counsel in defending Lefebvre did not return a call requesting comment.
(Copies of the 10-page opinion in Lefebvre v. Bielak, PICS No. 13-1355, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)