Chief Justice Laurel Siddoway and the Washington state court of appeals ruled Wednesday that the owner of a ram would not be held liable after the ram attacked an 82 year old man and was stopped only by projectile cantaloupes thrown by a passing woman.

The victim Jay Rhodes, local farmer, suffered a broken shoulder and sternum, five broken ribs and a concussion. He was hospitalized for 16 days. The ram belonged to a neighboring farmer and friend of Rhodes, Rodney MacHugh. It was penned on the land with permission as part of a standing agreement between the two men.

When Rhodes entered the enclosure one morning to attend to a sprinkler system, the ram attacked, butting him repeatedly. Rhodes went down at once but the ram continued its unwarranted assault. A woman passing with a cart of cantaloupes witnessed the attack in progress and began lobbing fruits at the animal to ward it off, which proved a successful endeavor. This incident occurred in 2012.

Consequently Rhodes sued MacHugh for damages. But trial court dismissed the case on a motion from MacHugh. Rhodes appealed.

The original case was dismissed without trial due to a well-known precedent of Washington law. The state bars liability for damages or injury by animals known to be, or kept for the purposes of being, more aggressive. Breeding bulls, for example, are abnormally dangerous for the bovine species, but not in comparison to other male bovine.

Thus full liability for damages or injury does not apply unless undue aggression or owner negligence can be reasonably proven. In his initial suit, Rhodes knew better than to bring MacHugh up on negligence, and refused to do so. Instead, Rhodes hoped to alter the precedent, holding ram owners liable in all cases for what their animals do, and in the process deeming rams dangerous livestock across the board.

Unfortunately for his case, Rhodes had had several previous friendly interactions with the lamb ram before ewes were introduced into the enclosure, and in his own words refers to the ram as “real friendly.” MacHugh also claimed he made it a point to purchase a docile animal, and he has been a sheep farmer for years. Through his own admission, he is familiar with meaner stock, and is therefore fully capable of accurately determining whether or not a lamb ram is an unnecessarily nasty fellow. And it follows that negligence cannot be proven.

Both men are experienced farmers with an understanding of male animals’ propensity for aggressive behavior. Chief Justice Siddoway and the appellate court could not find grounds to alter the precedent.

Though Rhodes’ situation is unlucky, the court this Wednesday ultimately ruled against him again, and denied the appeal. Siddoway ended his written opinion of the case by stating that “Mr. Rhodes’s unfortunate excursion with Mr. MacHugh’s ram does not persuade us that the limited…liability Washington has historically imposed on the owners of domestic animals should be enlarged.”


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