Headbutting ram’s owner must face premises liability claim, COA rules

A woman who was headbutted by a ram while tending to another woman's animals can continue to pursue her premises liability claim against the ram’s owner, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.

While out of state, Kathy Fillio left her Salem property and numerous animals in the care of Dennis Slate. While Fillio was gone, one of her female goats fell ill, and Slate unsuccessfully tried to contact Fillio by telephone. He then sought help from Darlene Perkins, who had more experience with farm animals.

When Perkins arrived, she saw the bleating goat on the ground in a pen with other animals, including a ram. As Perkins bent over to assist the female goat, the ram headbutted her, knocking her to the ground and breaking her arm or wrist. Perkins’ injuries required two surgeries.

Perkins then sued Fillio for negligence, and both parties moved for summary judgment. Perkins designated the affidavit of veterinarian Dwayne Allen, who said rams are generally territorial and tend to defend themselves, their territory and females perceived to be in their herd by headbutting unfamiliar animals or persons, tendencies sheep farmers are generally aware of.

Further, Perkins asserted that she was unaware the animal was a ram because it had no horns, that she had never owned a sheep or ram and was not familiar with their natural propensities, and that Slate did not warn that a ram might be protective and territorial toward an animal which it perceived to be part of its herd. Fillio’s testimony, however, made it clear she knew the sheep in the pen was a ram.

The Washington Circuit Court ultimately ruled in favor of Fillio, finding a lack of evidence indicating Fillio knew Perkins would be on her property or inside the area where she kept the ram and other sheep. It also ruled Fillio owed Perkins no duty of care.

But on appeal, Perkins argued the trial court should have concluded as a matter of law that Fillio was negligent for not taking measures to ensure her ram did not injure invitees. Fillio, however, contended she could not be held liable in the absence of specific knowledge that the ram had exhibited dangerous tendencies.

In a Tuesday decision, the Court of Appeals found that contrary to Fillio’s argument, a lack of specific knowledge would not necessarily relieve a domestic animal owner of liability.

“Here, while Perkins did not designate any evidence that the ram had ever exhibited any dangerous tendencies of which Fillio was aware, she did designate evidence that rams, as a class, do have dangerous tendencies, at least under certain circumstances,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote for the court.

The appellate panel further found that such evidence generated a genuine issue of material fact as to the dangerous tendencies of rams, which Fillio was bound to have known if true, generating an additional issue of whether Fillio took reasonable precautions under the circumstances to prevent the ram from causing injury to invitees on her land. Thus, the appellate court determined the trial court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of Fillio on Perkins’ premises liability claim in Darlene Perkins v. Kathy Fillio, 18A-PL-2278.

“Perkins, however, did not designate evidence sufficient to generate a genuine issue of material fact as to negligent entrustment or negligent supervision,” Bradford wrote. “Finally, Perkins did not preserve her claim of vicarious liability for appellate review, a claim that is not supported by any designated evidence of underlying negligence in any event.

“We reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand for further proceedings.”

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