In a case closely watched by the agricultural community, the Texas Supreme has ruled that the Farm Animal Activity Act (§§ 87.001-87.006, Civil Practice & Remedies Code), enacted by the Legislature in 1995 as part of a package of tort reform bills, does not provide immunity to ranchers or ranch hands for personal injuries caused by livestock. In an opinion by Chief Justice Hecht, joined by Justices Green, Guzman, Devine, Busby, and Lehrmann, SCOTX determined that the Act only applies only to a participant in a farm animal activity or livestock show that results from an “inherent risk” of such activities, “whether the person is an amateur or professional or pays . . . or participates . . . for free.” The Court reasoned that since a ranchers and ranch hands are engaged in handling livestock for pay, they do not fit within the Act’s category of immunized persons. Justice Blacklock dissented, joined by Justice Boyd.

Conway Waak, Jr.. and Marlene Waak d/b/a Carmine Charolais Ranch, and Carmine Charloais Ranch vRaul Amparo Zuniga Rodriguez and Ana Maria Ortiz Martinez, Individually and as Personal Representatives and Heirs of the Estate of Raul Amparo Zuniga (No.19-0167; decided June 12, 2020) arose from the death of a ranch hand employed by the Waaks who was killed by a bull when trying to load it into a trailer. Because the Waaks were non-subscribers to the workers’ compensation system, the ranchhand’s family sued them for wrongful death and survival, alleging that the Waaks were negligent in failing to provide a safe workplace, failing to properly train and warn of the dangers of working cattle, and failing to supervise him. The Waaks moved for summary judgment, asserting that the Farm Animal Activity Act barred the family’s claims. The Houston Court of Appeals (1st District) reversed the trial court, and SCOTX affirmed.

Chief Justice Hecht gives an extended analysis of the origins of the Act, which initially protected participants in equine activities from liability based on the inherent risks involved in exposure to horses. The Act protected equine facilities, including those for “a pony club, 4-H club, hunt club, riding club, therapeutic riding program, or high school or college class, program, or activity.” It also immunized “an operator of, instructor at, or promoter for . . . facilities . . . at which an equine activity is held, defined as “a stable, clubhouse, pony ride, string, fair, or arena”. As Chief Justice emphasized, a “participant”, whose recovery was limited by the Act, was defined as “a person who engages in an equine activity, without regard to whether the person is an amateur or professional or whether the person pays for the activity or participates in the activity for free.” And as Chief Justice Hecht notes, the Act did not cover “breeding, feeding, and working equine animals as a vocation.”

When the Texas Legislature enlarged the Act in 2011 to change its name and cover “bovines, sheep, goats, pigs, hogs, ratites, ostriches, rheas, emus, chicken, and other fowl,” it did not change the definition of “participant.” Chief Justice Hecht concludes that since a ranch hand does not engage in animal activity as an amateur, professional, or for free but as a vocation, the plain meaning of the statute precludes immunity. One aspect of this case that should not be overlooked is the decision of the ranchers to “go bare,” that is, not to subscribe to the workers’ compensation system. Presumably, they belong to a non-subscriber program that provides insurance coverage for an employee’s work-related injuries. If the ranchers had opted to subscribe to workers’ compensation insurance, the exclusive remedy would have barred the plaintiffs’ claims.

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