Imagine being held responsible for the sudden deaths of 180 dairy cows. That's what happened to Manteca, CA, hay dealer John Rossi.

His nightmare began in October of 1998 when he sold 350 tons of hay to Hibma Dairy near Turlock, CA. The following May, 180 of the Hibma family's 600 Holsteins died over the course of just four weeks.

The California Department of Agriculture and the University of California, Davis support the diagnosis made by the Hibmas' veterinarian: botulism.

While the case is still under investigation, it's strongly suspected that at least one bale of the aforementioned hay was contaminated with a toxin or spores produced by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum.

Fortunately, Rossi has product liability insurance. His $260 annual membership fee in the National Hay Association (NHA) currently includes up to $2 million of coverage, with a $1,000 deductible per claim.

"Our insurance covers any asset loss that can be traced to hay that NHA members have bought or sold," says NHA executive director Don Kieffer.

NHA changed carriers in 1998, so Rossi's botulism case falls under the previous carrier, with a $2,500 deductible. The Hibmas' claim is for $500,000 in damages. Rossi reports that the insurance provider hasn't settled yet, and the reason is unclear.

A 28-year veteran of the wholesale hay business, Rossi has been selling hay to the Hibmas for 20 years. "They still purchase hay from me because I have insurance and I went to bat for them with the insurance company," Rossi says.

But he has another problem. After the cows' deaths were linked to the hay, Rossi canceled the contract he had with the grower. The grower in question, one of several Rossi works with, filed a suit against him.

"They liquidated their remaining inventory, 700 tons, and are suing me for the difference between what they got for it and our contract price, $30,000 plus attorneys' fees," Rossi explains.

While the contract dispute case is still pending, Rossi's earlier NHA insurance carrier refuses to help him. Thus far, his losses include $2,500 for the previous deductible, $3,500 in lost sales commissions and $2,000 in attorneys' fees.

Despite all of the setbacks associated with the botulism ordeal, Rossi is still a strong proponent of liability insurance.

"I'm a firm believer in insurance and would not be in this business if I didn't have it," he says. "The National Hay Association provides excellent insurance, and you can't beat the price or service. They give us protection so we can operate without lawsuits taking a bite out of our profit, when we make one."

For more information about liability coverage, contact your insurance company or Don Kieffer, Executive Director, National Hay Association, at 800-707-0014. NHA can also be reached by e-mail at haynha@aol.com and via its Web site: www.haynha.org.