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Alabama’s Dumbest Laws – Car Wrecks and Livestock

There are plenty of things in law that make absolutely no sense, but today I came across one that really struck me as dumb.  So dumb that it inspired me to decide to write a series about Alabama’s stupidest laws.  Let me give you some background.

I am sure you can imagine a situation where you or someone you know is driving down a road, street or highway at night, and unbeknownst you, a cow, horse, or donkey (go ahead use that other name if you want) is standing in the middle of the road.  You do your best to avoid it, but you can’t  An animal this size can cause major damage, injury, and even death.

You might want to hold the livestock owner responsible, and rightly so, especially if he knew his animals were getting out through a hole in his fence, and did nothing to fix it.  Problem is that you would run smack into Alabama Code § 3-5-3, which prohibits holding a livestock owner liable in that situation unless he “knowingly or willingly put or placed such stock upon such public highway, road or street.”

What does that mean?  Well, some Alabama courts have interpreted it to mean that you actually have to prove that the owner intentionally put the animal in the street. Really?  Can that be right? Do you really have to prove that the owner purposefully put the animal there (as in tied it down, I guess) to recover?  Makes no sense to me, especially when the rest of us can be held liable to our fellow citizens for simple negligence – that is failing to take reasonable care to prevent foreseeable harm.

To make matters even worse, section 3-3-5 says that the owner of the animal is strictly liable “for all damages done to crops, shade or fruit trees or ornamental shrubs and flowers of any person.”  Strictly liable means you don’t have to prove any fault or wrongdoing by the owner.

So, if an animal eats your shade trees or azaleas, the owner has to pay up, regardless of whether he did anything wrong.  But, if the animal kills your neighbor driving down the road, your neighbor’s family can’t recover unless they can prove the owner “knowingly or willingly” put the animal there.  Do we really value property that much more than people?

The law was passed in 1939, at a time when cars were relatively new, and livestock containment methods probably weren’t that sophisticated.  It hasn’t been changed since, but maybe it should.  In the meantime, we’ll be left scratching our heads.  We’ll also be left to the mercy of Alabama’s courts in interpreting the statute.  Thankfully, many courts have found that the phrase “knowingly or willingly” does not require proof that someone intended to harm another, but simply that the person knowingly did an act likely to cause harm.  Knowing that your fence needs fixing and choosing not to fix it should rise to that level.  For the sake of avoiding a stupid result, let’s hope that it does.

Edwin Lamberth

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