A "real friendly" ram turns vicious; cantaloupes fly and bones are broken; is the ram's owner strictly liable?

Rhodes v. MacHugh, No. 32509-1-III (Wash. Ct. App. Nov. 3, 2015).

A ram and ewe near McMinnville, Oregon (credit: Sheila Sund / flickr)

A ram and ewe near McMinnville, Oregon (credit: Sheila Sund / flickr)

Rhodes and MacHugh have neighboring farms in Richland, Washington. MacHugh’s land is prone to flooding, so Rhodes has allowed MacHugh to keep some of his livestock on his property. Three summers ago, this livestock included a newly bought ram, which up to then had been “real friendly” to Rhodes. One August day, though, the ram slammed Rhodes to the ground and started headbutting him. Rhodes was knocked unconscious for half an hour. Thankfully, a neighbor stopped by to bring Rhodes some cantaloupes, and, seeing what was happening, turned those cantaloupes into ram-seeking missiles. The ram was distracted by the flying cantaloupes, and Rhodes was able to crawl away.

Even if there is some humor, or at least some incongruity, in all of this, Rhodes’s injuries are decidedly unfunny. An 82-year-old man, he suffered a concussion, five broken ribs, a broken sternum, and a broken shoulder. He was in the hospital for more than two weeks.

Rhodes has declined to charge his neighbor with negligence, and has proceeded solely on a strict-liability theory. Under Washington law, the owner of a domestic animal is strictly liable for the harm it causes if the animal is known to have “abnormally dangerous propensities.” The comments to the Third Restatement of Torts suggest that such animals might include “particular genders” of an otherwise innocuous species. 

For the Washington Court of Appeals, however, the “virility” of bulls, stallions, and rams is a necessary concomitant of their usefulness in breeding. Concerned that a rule of strict liability might overly deter livestock raising, the court holds that only negligent owners of rams and other male livestock are liable for the harm those animals may cause. Because Rhodes doesn’t allege that MacHugh was negligent, MacHugh is not liable.