By Eoghan Dalton

An organic farm in Co. 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.

Judge John Jordan disagreed with the defence’s case that Gerard Ryan Cooney, who received payments ranging from €4,000 to €6,000 annually since 2009, was not an employee of the farm and deemed him “casual labour” under common law.

Negligence determined by court

The judge found that Coumnageeha Organic Farm owner Emer O’Siochru, was negligent by common law and required a 60% majority proportion of the blame, with the worker 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 herdsman appeared to be a man “who got on with things and didn’t make a nuisance of himself” looking for improvements, while the farm owner 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 (Tuesday, June 21). The High Court, sitting in Waterford, hears cases with claims beginning at €60,000.

Heifer kick

Coumnageeha Organic Farm, described as producing organic beef from a local “ancient” and smaller breed known as Dexter cattle, is set across 43ac in Upperchurch, which was bought by Dublin-based architect Emer O’Siochru in 2008.

The incident occurred in January 2017 when a heifer let loose a kick with its hind leg which struck 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 to the court.

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,” Cooney Ryan said. “I was a hardy boy but it slowed me great.”

Farm manager

Cooney Ryan first met 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. Judge Jordan decided these did not apply to the case and instead was applying common law.

Legal counsel for Emer 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.

The judge agreed with senior counsel for the farm worker 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.

Judge 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 farm owner 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.