25 January 2012

Q: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

A: To stir up a whole lot of trouble.

Last summer, we had a wonderful surprise: one of our hens made a nest in one of the darkest corners of the barn, and three weeks later emerged with a nice brood of chicks. They were loads of fun to watch. Mother hen would take the chicks out every morning, and aggressively forage all across the property with them. At night, they would huddle up under her feathers to sleep. This went on for several weeks, and then suddenly...she was done. Just like that, she vanished back into the general population and left the juvenile chicks on their own.

After a few days of disorientation, the brood began thriving on its own. They continued to stick together as a distinct unit, and were easy to identify because many were of mixed breeds. (That crazy variety of colors was itself quite fun.) While the other chickens were content to stick around the barn and eat their layer ration, the half-dozen or so "hen brooded" juveniles continued foraging far and wide. They were impossible to contain, and sometimes we even had trouble getting them to roost inside the barn at night (we lost a couple of them to predators as a result).

As winter took hold full force, the "wild brood" began foraging still wider and discovered the corn field across the street from our farm. Commercial harvesting equipment tends to drop a fair amount of loose corn and even full cobs on the ground. Only the half-wild chickens ever foraged widely enough to discover this treasure trove...and, once they did, they started going over a number of times per day.

As the road that separates our farm from the corn field is a major feeder, with a speed limit of 45 MPH, it was only a matter of time before chickens started falling victim to traffic. We began finding dead chickens along the road, and as weeks went by the number of intrepid foragers dwindled to just three.

Then, yesterday morning, the issue suddenly became much larger than cleaning up dead chickens. Apparently (I was not home, and no member of our family witnessed the incident), one member of the foraging pack attempted to cross the road in front of a contractor's work truck. Whether the guy tried to slow down, or whether he may have even been trying to hit the chicken, we don't know. But, apparently, one way or another, the chicken ended up dead.

Contractor Dude then stopped his truck, stormed down our driveway, and banged on the back door of the house. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer was upstairs trying to keep a sleeping Yeoman Farm Baby asleep, so Homeschooled Farm Boy answered the door. Contractor Dude demanded to see one of the parents. When HFB explained that the parents were indisposed, Contractor Dude snarled that our chicken had smashed the front of his truck and caused all kinds of damage, and that unless one of the parents called him right away and paid for it he was "going to get the police out here." CD left a business card, and stormed off.

HFB was obviously flustered by this confrontation, and immediately called my cell phone. I assured him that I or his mother would take care of things when I got home, and that he shouldn't worry.

Although I questioned how a four pound chicken could do any significant damage to a pickup truck (I hit a flying pheasant once at 55 MPH, and it simply dented my hood), I figured anything might be possible. And with the rates that some auto body shops charge, we might get hit with a significant bill. So, as I drove home, I called our insurance agent to discuss our coverage and potential liability.

The agent assured me that in the event one of our animals inflicted damages on a person (i.e. dog bite) or property (stampeding goats?), our homeowners policy would cover it. But, he went on, under Michigan law we would almost certainly not have to pay anything in this particular case. Our state has an oddball set of "no fault" insurance rules, which means that every driver is responsible for collecting from his own insurance company --- regardless of who was at fault in an accident. Even if the other driver is 100% responsible for an accident, you can't collect a thing from him (other than a portion of the damages not covered by insurance). In the case of a collision with an animal, there's not even a provision to collect damages not covered by insurance. It doesn't matter if the animal in question is a deer, or if it belongs to someone who let it get out on the road. The only damages the driver can collect are from his own insurance company. If he isn't carrying comprehensive coverage, he's out of luck.

When Mrs. Yeoman Farmer called Contractor Dude to (1) express her regret that the truck had been damaged and (2) to explain that we were not legally responsible for those damages, CD cut her off. He launched into an accusatory tirade, claiming that our chicken did $1800 worth of damage to his truck. It'd apparently busted both the grille and the radiator (?!?), and he'd had to miss a meeting because of it. He said he wanted us to cover his insurance deductible, "or I'll have to get the police involved."

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer tried to explain that this was a civil matter and not a criminal case, and that therefore the police would not touch it, but he again angrily cut her off and and said he'd hired a lawyer to sue us for the $250 insurance deductible.

Whether that's true or not we don't know; Michigan law is pretty clear cut in saying he's not even entitled to that $250 (unless, as a representative from our insurance company joked, our chicken had been driving a car when causing the accident). I can't imagine a lawyer taking such a case. Just to be sure, I spoke with an attorney friend from our parish today; he confirmed that the guy would never prevail against us in court.

Contractor Dude made a few more threats, and then hung up on Mrs. Yeoman Farmer. She and I discussed the situation, and quickly came to the same conclusion: this guy is a bully, plain and simple. He's trying to brow-beat or scare us into coughing up some money, and thinks he can intimidate us enough to pay out quickly and wash our hands of him. (Why else would he mention bringing the police into a civil matter?)

Assuming we've read his motivations correctly, he's picked the wrong family. MYF and I genuinely feel bad that one of our animals seems to have been involved in this. (Though, since we have yet to see the damaged truck or the dead chicken --- which he says he hauled off to the police station as "evidence" --- we can only say "seems." And we're certainly not admitting any kind of blame or guilt.) If the guy had simply knocked on our door and explained the situation matter-of-factly to HFB rather than trying to threaten and intimidate, and had had a civil conversation when MYF called him, we might have agreed to pay out the $250 regardless of what Michigan law says. Assuming that one of our animals really had been the cause of someone else's loss (and we're not admitting it was), then compensating the other party would be the right thing to do.

But instead, we're feeling bullied --- and will fight any additional attempt that Contractor Dude makes to extort compensation from us. It's now about the Principle of The Thing, which is not letting our family get intimidated by this guy. If he again sets foot on our property, we will gently but firmly ask him to leave. If he refuses, and again attempts to intimidate us, we will be the ones calling the police. Unlike damages to a truck, trespassing on private property is a criminal matter.

Should a court, for some reason, order us to cover CD's deductible, we will honor and obey it. But nothing short of a formal legal judgment will cause us to pay out in this case.

It's a real shame that it's come to this. Almost everyone else we've met around here has been very nice and neighborly, and we've felt genuinely welcome in this community. I have no idea what's gotten into this guy, but I take solace in reminding myself that there are so few locals who are like him.

And, yes, we will be putting up a nice tight fence along the road as soon as spring gets here.


Sandi Ostrowski said...

Your life is such an adventure! I enjoy reading your blogs. Miss you guys!

Homesteading Mommy said...

CD crashed his own truck into a pole or something and saw a chicken as a way to not have to pay for damages himself. He disposed of the chicken body (if there ever was one) because the impact (again, if there was one) wasn't even enough to break its skin much less damage his radiator. What a looser. And sorry, no lawyer will take the case for $250. I had a very clear case of lawyer malpractice worth $20,000 and every lawyer I contacted agreed the lawyer was clearly at fault, but they wouldn't take the case for less than $100-200K. Granted that's for going against their own kind, but seriously, $250 bucks is less than an hour's wage for them and standing in court will definitely take more than that. Sorry you have to be subject to such levels of "humanity".