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Liability for on-farm injuries by livestock: Waak v. Rodriguez

By Jim Bradbury and Courtney Smith
James D. Bradbury, PLLC Attorneys

In June, the Texas Supreme Court decided an important case involving the Texas Farm Animal Activity Act. The Act limits liability for certain activities concerning farm animals. The Act defines “engages in a farm animal activity” to include “riding, handling, training, driving, loading, unloading, assisting in the medical treatment of, being a passenger on, or assisting a participant or sponsor with a farm animal.” Farm animal activities are broadly defined to include a variety of activities concerning farm animals from livestock shows, fairs, and rodeos to boarding farm animals to veterinary care to general handling, loading, or unloading of farm animals. Undoubtedly, the Act covered a wide array of activities concerning farm animals.

The Waak v. Rodriguez case tested the limits of the Act to protect farmers and ranchers from liability for death or injury to employees and independent contractors. The case involved a ranch near Brenham. The owners hired an employee to work cattle. In 2013, this employee was moving cattle at the ranch by himself. When the owners returned to the ranch, they found the employee dead behind the barn with injuries consistent with trampling by a large bull. The employee’s surviving family sued the ranch owners, who were non-subscribers under the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act. The ranch owners argued that the Farm Animal Activity Act barred plaintiffs’ claims.

The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment to the ranch owners. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the employee was not a “participant in a farm animal activity” under the Act. The Texas Supreme Court agreed and held that the Act did not apply.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court reasoned that ranch hands were not “participants” under the Act because they do not work as amateurs or professionals, do not pay for their work, and do not work for free. The Court also found that ranchers were not “farm animal activity organizers” and thus, were not protected by the Act. The Court further explained that if the Act were applied to ranchers and ranch hands it would eliminate any recourse for those employed by non-subscribers under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Two justices dissented from the Court’s decision, disagreeing with the Court’s narrow reading of the Act. The dissenting justices reasoned that the Act is broadly defined to include a wide array of activities, including farm and ranch work. The dissenting justices emphasized that the Act does and should apply to ranch workers.

The Waak case will have far-reaching implications for farmers and ranchers. It significantly limits the application of the liability protections of the Farm Animal Activity Act, removing ranchers and ranch hands from coverage under the Act. Notwithstanding the inclusion of ranching activities such as “handling, loading, or unloading” in the Act, it appears that the Court considers the Act to apply only to situations like livestock shows, rodeos, exhibitions, competitions, trail rides and riding lessons.

This reading is unlikely to change until either the Texas Legislature clarifies the breadth of the Act’s liability limitations in future legislation or until the Court changes its interpretation of the Act. For now, farmers and ranchers appear to have lost an important tool in limiting liability for farm and ranch work.

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