The liability of the livestock owner depends on whether the animals crossed an exterior or a division fence. An exterior fence is one that is not within a common enclosure. A fence along a public highway is an exterior fence. Division fences, on the other hand, are fences that separate adjoining landowners.

Where animals cross one or more exterior fences (or unfenced exterior boundaries) before entering a neighbor’s farm, the animal owner is probably liable for all damages that may arise on that farm and the livestock can be distrained, or seized. This results from the Missouri statute that places the duty to fence in animals on the animal owner (closed range, as opposed to the former open range).

The livestock owner’s potential defense to avoid liability includes arguing that the livestock escaped through no negligence on his part, as he kept a good fence and regularly fed and checked on his livestock. Another defense argument might be that acts of God, or force majeure, were intervening and unforeseeable forces causing the livestock to escape, such as a storm knocking trees down onto fences, or dogs chasing the livestock through the fence.

When livestock cross a division fence, the measure of damages for the first trespass is the true value of the damages sustained, together with costs before a magistrate.

For any subsequent trespass by livestock through a division fence, the injured party may distrain them. The injured party must immediately notify the animal owner, who shall pay the amount of damages sustained plus reasonable compensation for taking up and keeping the animals. If the parties cannot agree on the amount of damages and compensation, either party may complain to the circuit court of the county to settle the action in court. If the animal owner wins, he or she shall recover costs and any damages sustained, and the judge shall issue an order for the return of the animals. If the person who distrained the animals is allowed recovery for actual damages, compensation for keeping the animals and court costs, the judgment shall be a lien on the distrained livestock.

Example: A’s cow gets into B’s cornfield and causes substantial damage.

If there is no division fence between A and B, then A will be liable for the actual damages to B’s cornfield. If there is a division fence between A and B, the extent of A’s liability will depend on several factors:

Under the general county fencing statute: A will be liable for the damages only if the fence was a lawful one. If all portions of the fence are in good repair and A’s cow still sneaks through or over, A is liable for actual damages. If the cow sneaks over or through a portion of the fence B was obligated to repair but did not, A will not be liable for any damages caused by the cow to B’s land.

Under the optional county fencing statute: A’s liability will be determined basically as under the newly revised general county fence law. However, in a local option fence county, the statute

specifically authorizes B to have A’s defective portion of the division fence repaired at A’s expense if A neglects or refuses to repair his fence.

This information and more can be found in MU Extension publication G810: Missouri Fencing and Boundary Laws. Do not rely upon this article series or G810 for legal advice. This is information is a general statement of the law. Please direct your questions to an attorney to get relevant facts and act on them in your best interest.