Schwabe in the Field: Sunshine Heifers LLC v. Department of Agriculture: The Moral of the Story - Livestock Owners Cannot Sue Brand Inspectors over Theft
In my office is an old photograph of my father on the job as a brand inspector for the State of Oregon. He is concentrating, trying to inspect and keep track of each Hereford as it runs past him. Not that anyone tried, but it would have been nearly impossible to sneak stolen cattle out of that corral and onto the waiting cattle truck.
Mistakes can and do happen, however. Stolen cattle were sold in the case of Sunshine Heifers, LLC v. Dept. of Agriculture, 188 Wn. App. 960 (2015). Sunshine Heifer, LLC ("Sunshine") leased cattle to a Washington party that did not pay for them. Even though the cattle had Sunshine's brand or were subject to Sunshine's security interest, they were transported to Oregon without Sunshine's knowledge or permission. And, even after an inspection by the Washington Department of Agriculture ("DOA"), the stolen cattle were sold. Sunshine examined its options and sued the Washington DOA for negligent brand inspection.
Sunshine's case examined whether the state owes a duty to cattle owners to conduct brand inspections to assist them in protecting their property or, alternatively, whether brand inspections are simply provided to benefit the general public. This question is the crux of the public duty doctrine, which can be summed up as follows: the government can be held liable for negligence if it breaches a duty owed to an individual, but not for a duty owed for the common good of all. Admittedly, this is not a question my father would have found interesting in the least, but he raised a lawyer who does.
The court ultimately determined that the purpose of brand inspection is not only to prevent theft but also to promote the public welfare—by ensuring the orderly raising, transportation, sale and slaughter of cattle. Thus, in providing brand inspections, the court found that the DOA owes a duty to the public for the common good but does not owe a special duty to individual cattle owners. As a result, the DOA was not liable to Sunshine for negligent brand inspection. Livestock owners in this predicament cannot sue the DOA as a means to recoup their losses.
This result should remind livestock producers to put protocols into place to prevent theft, or to review and revise those you have in place to ensure they will be as effective as possible for preventing theft. Though it is difficult to recoup losses when livestock are stolen, it is still a good idea to update or put into place written agreements with contractors who pasture or lease livestock and ensure your operation is protected as best as you can to recoup costs and losses should livestock be stolen or transported out of state without your permission. Particularly if there is no means to recoup your losses by suing the State, these contracts will be your best opportunity to recoup your losses.