TX Supreme Court Sides with Bull Owner in Fence Law Case

The Texas Supreme Court has issued an important opinion in a much-watched fence law case from Wilson County involving a collision between a vehicle and a bull.  The Garcia v. Pruski opinion is favorable for livestock owners in much of the state. [Read full opinion here.]

Photo by matthias iordache on Unsplash

Background

Plaintiff, Mr. Garcia, was injured when his vehicle struck a bull on State Highway 123 in Wilson County.  Ms. Pruski (Defendant) owned property abutting the road that was enclosed by a six-strand barbed wire fence.  Pruski also owned the bull that escaped, wandered onto the highway, and was hit by Plaintiff.  The bull escaped the pasture by breaking the latch on the gate.  There was a lock present on the gate, but it was not locked at the time of the incident.  Defendant testified the only other time cattle escaped from the property was one time 8 years ago when a cow was struck by a vehicle on the same highway.

Plaintiff sued Defendant alleging that the Defendant both knowingly permitted and permitted the bull to run at large.  The trial court dismissed the case.

The Plaintiff appealed, making an interesting legal argument.  When a collision occurs on a State Highway, Texas statute says that in order for an animal owner to be found liable, he or she has to “knowingly permit” the animal to run at large.  When a collision occurs on another road in a county with a stock law, the law says the plaintiff only has to prove that the animal owner “permitted” the animal to run at large.  At issue in this case was what happens when both of these situations occur and the accident occurred on a state highway in a county with a stock law?  Which of the two standards is applicable?

The San Antonio Court of Appeals sided with Mr. Garcia. [Read prior blog post on that opinion here.]  In particular, the Court of Appeals held that in a situation where a collision occurs on a state highway in a closed range county, a plaintiff could succeed on his or her claim by proving either that the animal owner “knowingly permitted” or “permitted” the animal to run at large.  The court held that Mr. Garcia did not offer sufficient evidence to prove that  Pruski “knowingly permitted” the bull to run at large, but found there was sufficient evidence to allow the case to go to a jury on the question of whether he “permitted the bull to run at large on the highway.”

Pruski appealed this decision.

Opinion

As the Court noted, this is an important question and the difference in whether it is the “knowingly permit” or “permit” standard that applies in a case “can matter a great deal.”

The Texas Supreme Court sided with the bull owner,  holding that in a situation where a collision occurs on a State or US Highway in a county with a stock law, it is only the stricter “knowingly permit” standard that applies.

First, the Court held there was a conflict between the “knowingly permit” standard applicable to State and US Highways and the “permit” standard applicable in counties with a local stock law.  “Both cannot be the rule in the same lawsuit.”  The court relied upon language in the Texas Agriculture Code Section 143.102, which says that in the event of any conflict with another provision of the Agriculture Code, the “knowingly permit” standard shall prevail.  This language makes clear it must be the “knowingly permit” standard, alone, that applies in this case.

Second, the court looked to the history behind the “knowingly permit” standard found in Section 143.102 of the Agriculture Code. The “knowingly permit” standard for State and US Highways was adopted in 1959.  Prior to that, a 1935 statute imposed a permit standard, but only for highways that were fenced on both sides.  The Court viewed the 1959 statute as a trade-off for land/livestock owners.  They benefited from the heightened “knowingly” standard, but in return, the scope of the highways to which it applied increased from only those fenced highways to all State and US highways.  Additionally, also in 1959, Section 143.103 was added, which provides that when a driver strikes an animal on a State or US highway, the driver can only be liable upon a finding of gross negligence or intentional action.  The court believed this, too, was a trade off and an indication that the legislature intended for neither side–the animal owners or the drivers–to be liable absent a heightened culpable mental state.

Thus, the Court reversed the court of appeals and dismissed all claims against Pruski.

Interestingly, the Court did discuss the meaning of the “permit” standard imposed by local stock laws.  The court stated as follows, “However ‘permit’ is understood, it bears noting that the duty imposed by [the local stock law] is not to prevent all escapes for fenced animals.  Rather, the duty is to not ‘permit’ animals ‘to roam at large.’  Historically, to roam or run at large has meant more than temporary escape.  Instead, it refers to animals allowed as a matter of course to graze and move freely in an unconfined area.”   The Court then stated it “need not identify with precision the standard of civil liability” arising from the use of ‘permit’ in a local stock law.  This language, however, may be useful in future cases involving local stock laws as it certainly appears to indicate a more restrictive understanding of what it means for an animal owner to ‘permit’ an animal to run at large.  This language may allow for an argument that temporary escapes are not within the ‘permit’ standard, and that only allowing animals to roam as a matter of course would fall within this definition.  It will be interesting to see how this language is cited by other courts in future cases.

Key Takeaways 

First, on a very practical level, this case clarifies the law applicable in much of Texas.  There are many State and US highways located in counties that have passed stock laws to which this decision is directly applicable.  For livestock owners in those counties, they now know that if a collision occurs on a State or US highway, it is only the “knowingly permit” standard that would be applicable in a civil claim.

Second, the discussion of the court relating to the proper definition of the term “permit” as used in a local stock law was fascinating to me and may well be cited by livestock owners in future cases.  The Court seems to indicate that “permit” may require more than livestock temporarily being out on the road, but instead may require something more like allowing them to roam as a matter of course.  Flag this issue as I predict we will see this type of argument come up again in a future case.

Third, this case is a good reminder for livestock owners to investigate the status of their county with regard to a local stock law.  Does the county where you have livestock have a local stock law?  If so, does it apply to the entire county or just certain portions?  To what animals is it applicable?   For livestock owners interested in investigating this issue, I would recommend asking your local County Extension Agent, County Judge, County Attorney, or County Clerk to see if a local stock law has been passed.  If so, it would have been done by local election with results published in the Commissioner Court records.

Finally, any livestock-versus-auto case is a good reminder of the importance of all livestock and landowners having liability insurance.  Accidents happen and having liability insurance to cover these situations is extremely important.  Keep in mind that in addition to providing coverage for damage up to the policy limits, insurance also provides a defense, meaning that the insurance company takes care of providing the attorney to defend the policy holder in any litigation.

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