John Hubbard, a 19-year-old University of Idaho freshman, was killed in December when the car he was driving through a snowstorm in the southwestern Idaho desert slammed into a large horse.
The death, five days before Christmas, devastated his family. But sorrow turned to anger when insurance agents began inquiring about reimbursement for loss of the dead horse, says John's mother, Lorretta Hubbard of Pullman, Wash.Steve Johnson of Farm Bureau Insurance in Boise contends the calls were part of a routine preliminary investigation. No claim has been filed and the owner of the horse, Ben Howard of Bruneau, does not want reimbursement, Johnson said.
Hubbard, a secretary at Washington State University, remains convinced that the company has been pursuing reimbursement for the horse from her son's insurance company. Yet her anger is focused on Idaho's open-range laws, which place legal responsibility for the horse's death on her son.
"It really upsets me that the Idaho law says you've lost your son but the owner of the horse can sue you for the reimbursement of the animal," said Hubbard. "I think it's outdated, that law is. I think it's unbelievable we still have a law like that."
In open range, such as Owyhee County where Hubbard was killed, livestock has the right of way. If a landowner wants horses or cattle off his land, he must build a fence to keep them out. And if a driver kills a domestic animal, he is liable for the cost of replacing it.
Two aspects of the law were reviewed by the Idaho Supreme Court in 1987. But neither of the two rulings changed drivers' absolute liability in open range.
Idaho Code does allow counties to create "herd districts," where the owner of an animal is liable for any damage it causes. But that section of the Idaho Code is essentially unusable now, said Deputy Attorney General Dan Chadwick.
Through case law, it has been established that land traditionally used for open range cannot be included in a herd district, Chadwick said. Since almost all of Idaho is open range by custom, county commissioners are effectively blocked from creating herd districts.
Ranchers need open-range laws to earn a living, said Gary Glenn, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association. If cattle couldn't graze, ranchers would go broke trying to keep them fed.
And ranchers need laws to help them recover the costs of animals killed on the highways, said Johnson, of Farm Bureau Insurance.
From Hubbard's point of view, "it's a travesty of justice and a cruel and unusual law," Johnson said. "But for ranchers, it's a sad and tragic accident. It's also just that, an accident."
Bob Howard, who raises cattle in Owyhee County with his father, Ben Howard, agrees.
"It's a horrible thing that her son had to die, and we do not want compensation for the horse," he said. "But we've got to have open range. We've got to be able to move those cattle around."
The night he was killed, Hubbard had been headed for a favorite mountain in northern Nevada to contemplate some major decisions in his life, his mother says.
Deep snowdrifts forced him to turn back and wait out the storm at a cafe in Owyhee, Nev., on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation.
After waiting and playing foosball with local youths for about three hours, Hubbard decided to head back to Moscow.
An hour later, at about 10:45 p.m., Hubbard was about 35 miles away from the cafe and came upon a band of horses running down Idaho 51. Owyhee County Sheriff Tim Nettleton said the road was likely a sheet of ice.
Hubbard's Dodge Charger veered to the left and struck one of the horses. The car skidded 240 feet before coming to a rest. When hit, the horse rolled on top of the car and crushed Hubbard, who died about a half hour after the accident.