Does Strict Liability Apply to the Noise of Fireworks Causing a Dairy Cow Stampede?
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
By Ashley Ellixson
Today’s title may have you scratching your head and I completely understand why. Do fireworks and dairy cows even belong in the same sentence? I hear you. Today’s post is based on a court case right here in Maryland. Although this case was decided in Maryland, however, that does not mean it will not apply in other states. So if you are a farmer in Delaware or Virginia, this may still be important for you to know.
It all began when a church-sponsored fireworks event took place adjacent to a dairy farmer’s operation. The dairy farm consisted of 69 leased acres, a barn, and approximately 90 dairy cows. The firework display was legally permitted and a fire marshal was present. It’s also important to the case that no misfires or malfunctions took place. In compliance with Maryland code, the firework display must have a 250 feet firing radius. The church applied for its permit and expanded the radius to 300 feet. The dairyman’s barn, with both parties in agreement, was nowhere near the 300-foot firing radius.
On September 9, 2012 at 8:30pm, the church-sponsored firework display event began. At the time of the event, the dairy cattle were inside the barn. The dairy farmer arrived at the barn a few minutes after the fireworks began to witness what he claims was a stampede. There were no other eyewitnesses. As a result, the dairy farmer claimed three dairy cows had been killed, one injured enough that it eventually died from those injuries, milk revenue loss, and extensive barn and fence damage. On December 9, 2013, the dairy farmer filed suit against the church of $13,148.20 under several theories of law.
Ultimately, the court looks at one issue:
Does the doctrine of strict liability for an abnormally dangerous activity apply to the noise of a firework discharge, based on the facts of this case?
The doctrine of strict liability has long been recognized in Maryland as well as many other states. The premise of strict liability is that no fault must be shown to prove liability. For example, the dairy farmer would not have to prove the church was negligent or intentional in its act but only show that the event occurred and that the event caused the harm or damage.
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 519 defines strict liability for an abnormally dangerous activity as the following:
“One who carries on an abnormally dangerous activity is subject to liability for harm to the person, land or chattels of another resulting from the activity, although he has exercised the utmost care to prevent the harm…. This strict liability is limited to the kind of harm, the possibility of which makes the activity abnormally dangerous.”
This is the first case in Maryland where the court is looking at fireworks in the context of strict liability. The court usually looks at cases where fireworks malfunctioned or were mishandled, which was not the case at this church-sponsored firework event. The court looks to other states to see what their courts said as to whether discharging fireworks is a dangerous activity. What the Maryland court found was that the states were split. For example, the state of Washington said that discharging fireworks is an abnormally dangerous activity because it creates a “high risk of serious bodily injury and or property damage.” Alternatively, the appellate court in Pennsylvania rules that the risk involved in discharging fireworks did not rise to the level of an abnormally dangerous activity.
So what did the Maryland court in this case decide? Because the dairyman is blaming the “sound” of the fireworks for his damages, the court did not find that discharging fireworks in this case was an abnormally dangerous activity. The court may have decided differently, however, if the fireworks malfunctioned or caused physical damage, like a firework landing on the barn. For today, we know that the Maryland court concluded that the dairyman will not recover damages for the church-sponsored firework event not only because the court did not consider it an abnormally dangerous activity but also because the permitting regulations in place in Maryland reduce the risk of harm.