On June 12, 2020, the Texas Supreme Court handed down the opinion of Waak v Rodriguez in which they held that the heirs of a ranch hand killed by a bull while moving animals from one end of the ranch to the other were not barred from bringing claims against the ranch owner by the Texas Farm Animal Activity Act. The Supreme Court found that the Act simply was not intended to apply to ranchers and ranch hands under these circumstances.
What is the Texas Farm Animal Activity Act?
The Texas Farm Animal Activity Act is a statute limiting liability for an injury suffered by someone who participates in and animal activity or livestock show as a result of an inherent risk related to the activity. Liability under the Act does not matter if the participant is a professional or an amateur nor whether they pay a fee to participate.
Who Does the Texas Farm Animal Activity Act Apply To?
The Texas Farm Animal Activity Act protects the animal’s owner, equine professionals, and anyone who sponsors, organizes, or provides the facility for the equine activity. This includes scholastic clubs like FFA, 4H Clubs, riding clubs, and rodeos.
Assumption of the Risk
After reviewing the history of the Act and how it came to be, the Texas Supreme Court concluded that the Act was not aimed at protecting ranchers. The history of the act suggested it was created to replace the old assumption of the risk/contributory negligence rules of law that were largely eradicated by the adoption of comparative negligence in Texas (and many other states). Assumption of the risk was once a complete bar if someone voluntarily engaged in an animal activity that had an inherent risk (such as falling off a horse) and then the person was injured by the risk. Then, comparative negligence concepts that allowed the jury to compare the negligence of all parties and assign partial liability to multiple parties came to be very common in the United States.
The Court’s Logic
Their logic for this decision was that while the statute had some broad language, it went to great pains to give extensive examples of the various types of animal activities it protected. None of those examples mentioned ranchers nor ranch hands. Since the history suggested this statute was brought about to fill the void that occurred when comparative negligence replaced assumption of the risk defenses, As a result, they allowed a lawsuit by the heirs of the deceased ranch hand to pursue negligence causes of action against the ranch owner.
No Common Law Defenses Against an Employee
This opinion is actually very consistent with Texas employer-employee laws. Texas is the only state in the nation that makes worker’s compensation optional. However, even though employers are not required to carry worker’s compensation, they are penalized if they fail to do so. The penalty is that they lose their common law defenses–such as assumption of the risk or contributory negligence. If the Texas Supreme Court had allowed the ranch owner (employer) to bar an action by the ranch hand (employee), this would have contradicted the policy behind the Texas Worker’s Compensation Law of rewarding employers who provide worker’s compensation and punishing employer’s that don’t provide worker’s compensation for their employees.
The Texas Supreme Court has demonstrated that they see the Texas Farm Animal Activity Act as a statute to be applied towards the use of animals in recreational and/or entertainment-type activities such as fairs, rodeos, and other livestock events. They have applied it in the same manner that the old common law assumption of the risk defense was applied. The Supreme Court has further applied the Act in such a way that it does not conflict with the Texas Worker’s Compensation Act’s defense waiver provisions for employers who chose not to provide worker’s compensation.