An organic farm in Tipperary has been found by the High Court to have been “negligent” in protecting its herdsman, after he suffered a kick from a heifer which required him to undergo emergency surgery.
The court ruled that Gerard Ryan Cooney, 63, from Upperchurch, Thurles, was working in an “unsafe” and “poorly designed” cattle crush which did not separate the animals correctly, needing him to enter the pen.
Mr Justice John Jordan disagreed with the defence’s case that Mr Ryan Cooney, who received payments ranging from €4,000 to €6,000 annually since 2009, was not an employee of the defendant and deemed him “casual labour” under common law.
He found the defendant, Coumnageeha Organic Farm owner Emer O’Siochru, was negligent by common law and required a 60 percent majority propitiation of the blame, with the plaintiff taking on the remainder as the judge found him guilty of contributory negligence as he did not ask for changes to the pen system.
He said the farmer appeared to be a man “who got on with things and didn’t make a nuisance of himself” looking for improvements, while the defendant had stressed she would have immediately resolved the situation if she was told there was an issue with the pen.
The case was settled for an undisclosed sum with legal costs included today. The High Court, sitting in Waterford, hears cases with claims beginning at €60,000.
Coumnageeha Organic Farm, described as producing organic beef from a local “ancient” and smaller breed known as Dexter cattle, is set across 43 acres in Upperchurch, which were bought by Dublin-based architect Ms O’Siochru in 2008.
The incident occurred in January 2017 when a heifer let loose a kick with its hind leg which struck Mr Cooney Ryan’s knee; he recalled a “drop of brandy” was given to revive him by one helper and he was later brought to University Hospital Limerick for emergency surgery that same day.
“She just let fly and that was that,” he said in evidence.
He added he has been advised he is at risk of developing a form of arthritis. His leg now often slips from under him on uneven ground, while he also can no longer kneel and requires a quad bike to get around the farm.
“The only time I’m now on my knees is when I’ve fallen down,” Mr Cooney Ryan said. “I was a hardy boy but it slowed me great.”
He first met Ms O’Siuchru after she bought the land and agreed to work for her as a “herdsman or farm manager” to look after dexter cattle.
The liability action was taken under sections 12 and 15 of the Health and Safety Act 2005. Mr Justice Jordan decided these did not apply to the case and instead was applying common law.
Counsel for Ms O’Siochru, Conor Roberts, said a key question lay in who had control on the ground, saying the farmer was in charge of the week to week operation.
In his ruling, Mr Justice Jordan said much was also made of the plaintiff’s “suggested deficiencies” in terms of his Revenue returns, as the farmer had allegedly not declared he was anything other than self-employed on his tax forms up to 2016. The court heard he had been unable to carry out subsequent returns based on an ability to concentrate since his injury.
However the judge said it would be “very unfair to the plaintiff to place much stock” in this when coming to his decision.
He agreed with Michael Counihan SC, for the plaintiff, that the business partnership had the “ingredients of an employer-employee relationship”. If he were to pay a person to do work on an estate and provided facilities for them to carry out the work, he said he would be “obliged to take reasonable care for that person” as they do their job.
Mr Justice Jordan said the situation was not helped by the dexter breed being more “wild” than those on a more typical farm, while a gate installed in the cattle crush – which was to help funnel the cattle along – was too long to close correctly.
He added that he was satisfied the defendant had an obligation to ensure the pen was safe but the “simple fact” was that it was “unsafe” to work with.
Concluding his judgement, he said he was impressed by both parties, adding they are “clearly decent, hardworking and honest individuals” who continued to work together even amid the legal action.
With thanks to Eoghan Dalton