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One man dies, 10-year-old's life threatened after vehicle hits six cows on Interstate 90 in SD

MITCHELL, S.D. — Drive at your own risk.

That's according to Davison County Sheriff Steve Brink, who said South Dakota's open range law protects owners of domestic animals from liability if the animal gets loose.

On Saturday, 39-year-old Tracy Morehead of nearby Salem, S.D., was killed, and others seriously injured, when the vehicle he was driving collided with a vehicle that had struck a group of cattle after dark on Interstate 90 one mile east of Mitchell. But cows on the loose create what Brink called a "gray area" for law enforcement when determining who is at fault in a vehicle crash.

"I personally do not think the open range law should apply to the East River," Brink said on Monday. "It basically says that drivers drive at their own risk."

According to South Dakota's open range law, owners of domestic animals are not "liable for damages for an injury resulting from its being so at large unless he has knowledge of vicious propensities of the animal" or "there is reasonable anticipation for injury that would result from its being so at large on the highway."

The issue of whether a farmer or rancher is liable for damages in the case of a motor vehicle crash is dependent on the type of road, the kind of traffic and whether the farmer or rancher knew the livestock would likely be on the road.

Cattle entering the roadway causing a vehicle crash happens approximately six times a year, according to Brink. However, the Davison County Sheriff's Office receives a couple calls a week about cows getting loose, but often times farmers or ranchers will get them back before law enforcement arrives. According to Brink, penalties depend on the insurance companies of the parties involved in the vehicle crash to determine who is at fault.

The crash that killed Morehead and injured several more involved six cows that entered the roadway about 8 p.m., according to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety.

A 37-year-old man was driving a 2014 Dodge Durango with his family when it hit the six cows on the roadway and came to a stop in the passing lane. That's when Moorhead's 2002 Chevy Impala hit the rear of the Durango.

The man and his wife were able to get one of their children, a 3-year-old in the backseat of the Durango, out of the vehicle before Moorhead's car hit it. However, a 10-year-old in the backseat suffered life threatening injuries and was taken to the Mitchell hospital before being airlifted to to a Sioux Falls hospital. The mother, 33, also had serious injuries and was taken to the Mitchell hospital by ambulance.

The father had only minor injuries. The 3-year-old wasn't hurt.

Morehead had been a member of the nearby Salem and Spencer fire departments for about seven years.

His funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Kinzley Funeral Home in Salem.

After Presho (S.D.)  Fire Chief Donny Manger died at the scene of a fire last week, it’s been a “tough week” across the state, Salem Fire Chief Nathan Olinger said. And the loss of Morehead hits hard.

“It’s a bad deal, it’s a sad deal,” Olinger said. “Firefighters across the state are one big family, and it’s like what happens to you what happens to all of us. How we honor them is to keep answering the call.”  

The cows and others from the same herd were still on the loose later Saturday night in Mitchell, and residents received a warning alert from the Mitchell Police Division.

According to Mitchell Police Sgt. Joel Reinesch, law enforcement officers were still pushing some cows back onto the property on Monday morning. But the Davison County Sheriff's Office handles the majority of cases of cows on the loose unless they enter Mitchell.

"I would say it happens a few times a year on average in city limits, but typically not to the numbers as this most recent incident in regard to the numbers of cows actually getting out," said Reinesch. "The sheriff's office fields almost all of these calls as they originate in the county and typically head them off before it becomes a city issue."

During the daytime, law enforcement can easily spot livestock that may have entered roadways. But at night, loose cattle can be challenging to spot.

"You can have the best fence in the world but sometimes this happens," Brink said. "It is a tragedy when they get out and it is dark because people can not see the cattle."