Once again, it’s been a busy year for agricultural law in Texas. There were a number of potential cases that I could have included on this list, but I’ve decided to focus on three key agricultural law cases for which the Texas Supreme Court granted petitions for review in 2019.
Garcia v. Pruski (Fence Law)
In this important fence law case out of Wilson County, the San Antonio Court of Appeals addressed legal issues related to a bull getting hit on the highway. [Read prior blog post here.] Two key concepts were included in the Court of Appeals opinion. First, in a situation where an animal is hit on a highway in a county with a local stock law, which standard applies? For state highways, the applicable legal standard is that a landowner can be liable if he “knowingly permits” the animal to run at large, but for counties with local stock laws, the legal standard is that a landowner can be liable if he “permits” the animal to run at large. The San Antonio Court of Appeals held that the more plaintiff-friendly “permit” standard applied. In this case, although the court ruled that the plaintiff did not offer sufficient evidence to satisfy the more stringent “knowingly permit standard,” the judge found there was sufficient evidence to allow the case to go to a jury on the issue of “permit.”
Second, the apppellate court considered how to analyze the definition of “permit” under a local stock law. What is “permitting” an animal to run at large? While prior cases had taken a fairly strict viewpoint, stating that in order to prove someone permitted an animal to run at large, a plaintiff would have to show “knowing conduct” or “gave consent expressly or formally,” the court in this case appeared to adopt a much more relaxed standard, which favors a plaintiff. Here, the court said that permit may be proven “by evidence showing the person was at fault in allowing any mentioned animal to run at large.” Utilizing this standard, the court held that the facts in this case–that the bull owner latched, but did not lock his gate, the owner knew there was a risk the bull could get out without a lock, and that the bull owner did not have a cattle guard–was sufficient to allow the question to go to a jury.
The bull owner in this case has sought review from the Texas Supreme Court. This is an important ruling for Texas land and livestock owners, as it appears to modify the standard at play in cases where animals are hit on a roadway in favor of the injured plaintiff. A group of agricultural and landowner groups including Texas Farm Bureau, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, and South Texans for Property Rights has filed an amicus brief in this case, highlighting many of these concerns and urging the Texas Supreme Court to grant the petition for review. [Read amicus brief here.]
The Texas Supreme Court accepted the Petition for Review filed by the landowner in this case. Oral argument was heard in November 2019 and may be viewed by clicking here. A decision will likely be issued in 2020.
SWEPCO v. Lynch (Scope of Easement)
A decision from the Texarkana Court of Appeals in Southwestern Electric Power Company v. Lynch, may offer some hope to landowners dealing with old, blankets easement on their property. While this case is certainly limited in scope, it could prove useful in certain similar factual situations.
In this case, Bowie County landowners’ property was burdened by a 1949 utility easement. None of the easement documents specified the width of the easement. Since 1949, the company has continually used the easement to construct, service, and maintain electric transmission lines, historically using approximately 30 feet in total width. In 2014, the company began to rebuild and modernize the lines and offered landowners $1000 in exchange for supplementing the existing easement with an express width of 100 feet.
The plaintiffs in this case refused the $1,000 offer and contended the company’s use should be limited to the historically used 30′. The trial court judge sided with the landowners and limited the easement to 30′ wide. The company appealed.
The Texarkana Court of Appeals reversed and sided with the landowners. [Read prior blog post here.] The court reasoned that where an easement is silent as to width, as this one was, the company was “entitled to use as much of the landowner’s property as is reasonably necessary, while being as little burden as possible.” The court rejected arguments from the company relying on other prior decisions in cases where easements expressly allowed additional lines to be laid and cases where the easement expressly agreed to allow for relocation, deciding that here, under a general easement, once the location was selected, “its rights then become fixed and certain.”
Not surprisingly, the company has sought review of this decision by the Texas Supreme Court. A number of groups on both sides have filed amicus briefs in this case. [Click here for list and PDF downloads.] Several agricultural groups have done so, urging the Supreme Court to deny review as there was no error by the lower level courts in this case. In August 2019, the Texas Supreme Court granted the petition for review. Oral argument was held on December 5, 2019 and may be viewed here.
This case certainly highlights a major issue for Texas landowners. Many of us own property upon which there are old, blanket easement agreements in place. It is not uncommon for a landowner to seek some sort of limitation on what may be done pursuant to those agreements. While this case certainly is factually specific, it at least offers an argument that the width of old, blanket easements should be limited if the right facts exist.
Waak v. Zuniga (Farm Animal Liability Act)
This case addresses an important issue with regard to the scope of the Texas Farm Animal Liability Act: Does the Act available as a defense to an agricultural operation if the injured party is an employee of that operation?
Defendants own a cattle ranch in Fayette County where the plaintiff began working in 2005, eventually moving onto the ranch and working full time in 2007. He had responsibilities for feeding, monitoring, and moving cattle. On October 1, 2013, the ranch owner told the plaintiff to move about 20 head of cattle to a different pasture. The owner asked if the plaintiff needed help, but the plaintiff said he did not. The next day, plaintiff got most of the cattle moved, with the exception of the bull, one cow, and her calf. The plaintiff was then found dead in the pasture and the cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma caused by the bull.
The ranch owners did not have workers compensation insurance, which would have provided payment to the plaintiff’s family, but would have not allowed them to bring suit in court. Because of this, the plaintiff’s family filed a wrongful death claim against the ranch owners, alleging that the owners were negligent by failing to provide proper safety equipment and failing to warn the plaintiff of dangerous conditions on the premises.
The owners sought to have the case dismissed on summary judgment based on the Farm Animal Liability Act (FALA). The critical issue in this case was whether the plaintiff was a “participant in a farm animal activity” as defined under the Act. The trial court sided with the ranch owners, finding that the Farm Animal Liability Act applied and dismissing the plaintiff’s claims. The plaintiffs appealed and the Houston Court of Appeals (1st Circuit) reversed.
The court held that the Texas Farm Animal Liability Act was inapplicable when the injured party is an employee of the agricultural operation. This has been a question previously unaddressed by the Texas Supreme Court, so if the Court rules on this question, it could have significant impact on animal agriculture operations in Texas. Additionally, the court determined that the injured party was an employee of the ranch and, because the ranch elected not to carry worker’s compensation insurance and did not have less than three employees, they were prohibited from raising certain defenses in the wrongful death suit.
The Texas Supreme Court granted the petition for review in December 2019, with oral argument scheduled for January 30, 2020.
As you can see, 2020 is already shaping up to be a busy year for agricultural law. To stay up to date on the latest, be sure to subscribe to this blog (you will get each post I write as an email from me) and check out my Ag Law in the Field Podcast, which you can listen to here or on your favorite podcast app or iTunes.