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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Farmer Saved by Melon Baller Loses Lawsuit

(CN) - An 82-year-old man who survived a ram attack with help from a cantaloupe-hurling friend cannot collect damages from the beast's owner, a Washington appeals court ruled.

Jay Rhodes raised cows, horses, goats and pigs for decades. He is quoted in court records as calling the summer of 2012 "my first excursion with sheep. And an unfortunate one,"

His neighbor, Rodney MacHugh, raised sheep and other animals for more than 30 years. Because of flooding problems on his land, however, MacHugh kept some of his livestock on Rhodes' property.

MacHugh's ram was "in really old shape" in the summer of 2012, so he went to a livestock yard in Lewiston to buy a new one and brought Rhodes along.

The new ram was less than a year old and weighed 150 pounds. Rhodes said that when it arrived on his property, it was "real friendly."

"He'd come up to me several times when I was changing water, and I'd pet him," Rhodes said, according to court records.

But the mood was about to change, as Rhodes discovered when he entered a pasture where the ram was grazing with some ewes.

As Rhodes bend to turn on the sprinklers, the ram butted him from behind.

The ram continued to "jump up in the air and then he'd hit me with his head," Rhodes said, according to court records.

The rampage continued for as much as 30 minutes, with Rhodes blacking out repeatedly, until a neighbor happened by with cantaloupes he was planning to give Rhodes.

By throwing the cantaloupes at the ram, the neighbor was able to distract the beast long enough for Rhodes to escape.

He spent 16 days in the hospital recovering from a concussion, a broken sternum, a broken shoulder and five broken ribs.

Rhodes sued MacHugh to recover damages from his injuries, but he did not allege that his neighbor was negligent nor that the ram was unusually dangerous.

MacHugh said that the ram was the "friendliest" of the three rams available for sale.

Rhodes relied on a theory of strict liability to be applied to the owners of all rams. The trial court dismissed his lawsuit, and an appellate panel in Spokane affirmed last week.

State law regarding domestic animals places liability on an animal's owner who knows his animal is dangerous, the Third Division Court of Appeals found.

The court declined to credit the argument that Washington's tort law gives courts leeway to consider the gender or breed to determine whether certain animals are dangerous.

"Mr. Rhodes asks us to act on this acknowledgement and common knowledge that while ewes may be timid, rams are known to be dangerous," Chief Judge Laurel Siddoway wrote for a three-judge panel.

Yet, the aggressive behavior of bulls, stallions and rams are commonly known, the court found.

"In other words, a ram has not been considered 'abnormally' dangerous for purposes of applying strict liability under (the law) because its dangerous propensities are 'normal' for its species," the Nov. 3 decision states.

"Mr. Rhodes' unfortunate excursion with Mr. MacHugh's ram does not persuade us that the limited scope of strict liability that Washington has historically imposed on the owners of domestic animals should be enlarged," Siddoway added.

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