University of Vermont AAHS

Briggs v. Finley

 

Indiana Court of Appeals
631 N.E.2d 959
March 31, 1994

 

Summary of Opinion

Defendant Finley owned several horses which he kept on a farm that he lived on only on weekends. He employed one McDaniel to take care of the horses during the week. McDaniel was a work-release convict in the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections. On March 7, Finley reprimanded McDaniel for being asleep on the job. On March 9, McDaniel quit work but Finley did not know of this until March 12 or 13.

On March 11, the plaintiff Briggs was on the highway next to the farm when he collided with one of Finley's horses. A gate that is normally closed and locked had been left open. Briggs sued but the trial court held in favor of the defendant.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court. There was no evidence that Finley personally was responsible for permitting the horses to escape--he wasn't even there. There is also no evidence that McDaniel let the horses go in retaliation for being reprimanded by defendant. In fact, at the time the horses escaped, McDaniel was no longer being employed by Finley. Finally, there is no evidence that Finley was negligent in hiring McDaniel as there was no evidence of past conduct by McDaniel that would have alerted Finley not to hire McDaniel. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court finding for the defendant without a trial.

Text of Opinion

The uncontroverted facts relevant to this appeal are that Finley owns and operates a farm located on Highway 35 in LaPorte, Indiana. Finley works in Chicago, Illinois during the week and spends his weekends at his LaPorte farm. On his approximately 200-acre farm Finley has a residence, several barns, buildings, and fields.

In 1988, Finley had five horses, including one Arabian mare which was with foal. He contained the horses in a 600 foot by 150 foot corral. The gate to the corral was secured with a chain and padlock. The corral was connected to an adjacent field and a barn. The field was fenced-in and the fence gate was secured by a bolt and chain lock. The connecting barn's front door opened into the corral to permit free ingress and egress by the horses. The barn's south side door was secured with latches on both sides, and opened into the adjacent fenced-in field. The horses could not jump the fence or open the gates or latches themselves. No horse had ever escaped from the corral-barn-field enclosure.

Finley employed Allen McDaniel, an inmate of the Summitt Farms Work Release Center of the Indiana Department of Corrections, part-time to feed his horses. Officials from the Summitt Farms Work Release Center transported McDaniel to Finley's farm every day about 7:30 a.m. and picked him up at 2:00 p.m. McDaniel also worked five days per week at a restaurant from 3:00 p.m. until approximately midnight. Finley usually talked to McDaniel from Chicago by telephone daily or every two or three days. However, Finley did not expect McDaniel to answer the telephone each time he called. On or about March 7, 1988, Finley reprimanded McDaniel after catching him asleep during working hours. On March 9, 1988, McDaniel quit without notice, and Finley did not discover this until March 12 or 13.

Sometime before March 11, 1988, the side door to the horse barn was opened and the gate to the fenced-in field adjacent to the corral and barn was unlocked and left open allowing Finley's horses to get loose. There is no evidence who opened the gate. On March 11, 1988, at approximately 11:30 p.m., Briggs was on his way to work when he passed by the Finley farm and collided with Finley's Arabian mare which had wandered out of its enclosure and onto the highway. As a result of the collision, Finley's horse died and Briggs sustained personal injuries and damage to his automobile.

Finley was in Chicago at the time of the collision and did not return to his LaPorte farm until the evening of March 12. Finley did not discover that his horses were not in their enclosure until he saw them running loose on the morning of March 13, 1988. Finley did not learn of Briggs' collision with his Arabian mare until later that day.

In order to prevail in a negligence action, Briggs had to establish the three elements for actionable negligence: (1) a duty flowing from Finley to him, (2) a breach of that duty, and (3) injury to Briggs resulting from that breach. Finley acknowledges that as the owner of domestic animals he had a duty to exercise ordinary care to keep his horses confined and not to let them stray out onto a traveled highway. Thus, the questions remaining are whether Finley breached this duty and, if so, whether the breach resulted in Briggs' injury.

WAS FINLEY NEGLIGENT IN CONFINING THE MARE? Finley contends that summary judgment was proper because the evidentiary materials show that he was not negligent in his choice of confinement or in recapturing his horses after learning they were loose. Briggs counters that summary judgment was improper because Finley failed to establish that he did not have constructive knowledge the horses were loose before the accident or that he did not negligently employ McDaniel to feed his horses.

There is absolutely no evidence who unlocked the gate through which Finley's horses escaped. Briggs' hypothesis that McDaniel was disgruntled for having been reprimanded by Finley and that in retaliation McDaniel unlocked the fence gate allowing the horses to get loose did not create a genuine issue of material fact, as it is not supported by any evidence but is merely conjecture. We reject Briggs' invitation to infer that McDaniel let the horses loose, that Finley "knew" that McDaniel would let the horses loose and that the Arabian mare would run into the highway, but negligently confined the horses in the corral enclosure anyway. Absent a showing that McDaniel let the horses loose and that Finley knew he would release the horses on March 11, no dispute of material fact exists. No such showing was made here. Briggs did not allege or provide even a scintilla of evidence, nor is there any in the record, that McDaniel negligently or intentionally unlocked the gate and let the horses loose. Additionally, Finley's own speculation that McDaniel could have possibly let the horses loose is not evidence that he did in fact let them loose.

The argument Briggs presented to the trial court is pure conjecture. Briggs was required to come forward with some evidence, as opposed to speculation, that Finley knew of the escape and failed to take reasonable steps to bring the horses back to confinement. His failure to do so represents a complete failure of evidence on a basic element of his claim and therefore mandates summary judgment against him. Briggs' argument is nothing more than suppositional musings. The trial court properly granted summary judgment to Finley on this issue.

Briggs did assert in his complaint that Finley failed to contain and secure his horses properly. Accordingly, the material fact relevant to this claim is the reasonableness of the method of confinement chosen by Finley.

Although the owner of an animal has a common law duty to confine it, the escape of an animal is not negligence per se on the part of the owner. In order to prevail, an injured party must establish (1) that the owner placed the animal in confinement which he knew or should have known would be ineffective and could reasonably foresee the animal would escape therefrom, or (2) that the owner knew the animal had escaped but took no reasonable steps to bring it back to confinement. Thus, the mere fact that an animal is loose is not alone sufficient cause or basis to support a finding of negligence.

It is well settled that the legal duty owed by the owner in restraining and confining his animal is that of reasonable care under the circumstances. The safeguards to be observed and the foresight to be exercised in restraining and confining an animal depend upon the circumstances of the particular case, and are usually matters to be resolved by the fact-finder.

The uncontradicted evidence relevant to this claim is that Finley locked his horses in a corral secured by chains and padlocks. The corral was connected to a secure barn which opened into a field which was fenced-in and secured with a bolt and chain lock. The horses had never before escaped. The horses could not unfasten the locks or jump over the corral or fence. Finley was out of town and did not know that the Arabian mare was out of its enclosure until after the collision. The trial court correctly determined that, as a matter of law, Finley was not negligent in the manner in which he confined his horses and could not reasonably foresee his horses were likely to escape.

WAS FINLEY NEGLIGENT IN EMPLOYING McDANIEL? Next Briggs contends that summary judgment was improper because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Finley was negligent in employing McDaniel to feed his horses. Specifically, Briggs argues that Finley failed to address this claim in his summary judgment motion, and thus, summary judgment was improper. Alternatively, Briggs argues that Finley is responsible for his employee's actions and that if McDaniel let the horses loose, then Finley is responsible.

Here, Briggs essentially claims that Finley's confinement of his horses was negligent because he allowed "inexpensive convict labor" to feed his horses daily and did not employ someone to watch the horses twenty-four hours per day to ensure that they did not escape. He also argues that because Finley had recently reprimanded McDaniel for sleeping, Finley should have expected McDaniel to do something rash or careless, and to realize that the horses confinement in the corral-barn-field enclosure would no longer be effective. Whether McDaniel was a good or poor employee is of no consequence in light of our findings above. McDaniel's employment is not a material issue here because Finley's method of confining his horses in the corral-barn-field enclosure was necessarily sufficient alone. Thus, Finley's employment of someone to feed his horses daily while the horses were contained within the enclosure does not make the horses' confinement within the enclosure negligent. Finley's part-time employment of McDaniel at minimum wage to feed his horses and his failure to speak with McDaniel daily does not make the confinement unreasonable under the circumstances.

Furthermore, McDaniel terminated employment on March 9, and nothing shows that the horses escaped while McDaniel was still employed by Finley. Thus, Briggs' allegation of negligent employment also fails because the employment relationship did not exist at the time of the horses escape. The trial court properly entered summary judgment against Briggs. Even if were we to blindly assume that McDaniel let the horses loose before he quit his job, Finley would not be responsible because he did not authorize such action nor would such action be in his service. Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is responsible for the actions of his employee only if the employee is acting within the scope of his employment. An employee acts outside the scope of his employment where he acts on his own initiative and not in the service of the employer.

Under this same assumption, Finley cannot be held responsible under the principle of negligent retention of an employee either. Although under certain circumstances an employer may be liable for the action of an employee who is not acting within the scope of his employment, under the principle of negligent retention an employer may be liable for retaining an employee only if he knows the employee is in the habit of misconducting himself in a manner dangerous to others. Here, in all the materials designated and considered by the trial court there was no evidence that McDaniel habitually endangered others. The sole complaint against McDaniel was that he once took a nap during working hours. As a matter of law, this does not constitute habitual misconduct nor endangerment to others.


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