The Texas Supreme Court issued a divided opinion on a case involving the death of a ranch employee and determined the Farm Animal Liability Act does not apply to “ranchers and ranch hands.” This interpretation limits the scope of the Act and is important for livestock owners to be aware of. [Read full opinion here.]
The Waaks raise Charolais cattle in Fayette County. In 2005, they hired Raul Zuniga to work part time with the cattle, landscaping, and cutting hay. In 2008, he began working full-time for the Waaks. He lived on the ranch in a mobile home he was in the process of purchasing from the Waaks. The Waaks were non-subscribers to the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act.
Initially, Mr. Waak trained Mr. Zuniga on how to work cattle and watched to ensure work was done properly. As the years went by, Zuniga often worked cattle alone while Waak was away at his oilfield job. Zuniga did not have a set work schedule.
In October 2013, Waak instructed Zuniga to move 20 head of cattle from one end of the ranch to another, an activity Zuniga had done many times. After moving most of the cattle, Zuniga called the Waaks (who were in town running errands) to confirm he should move the last three cattle remaining in a pen: a bull, a cow, and the cow’s calf. They instructed him to do so. When the Waaks got home, they found Zuniga lying dead behind the barn. His cause of death was determined to be “blunt force and crush injuries” and the medical examiner noted the injuries were “severe enough to have come from extensive force like that of a large animal trampling the body.”
Zuniga’s parents and his surviving children sued the Waaks for wrongful death. They alleged that the bull killed Zuniga and the Waaks were negligent in several respects, including failure to provide a safe work space, failure to adequately train Zuniga and warn him of dangers of working with cattle, and failure to supervise Zuniga.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Waaks and dismissed the case. This was based upon the court’s determination that the Texas Farm Animal Liability Act (FALA) barred the plaintiff’s claims. Zuniga’s family appealed.
The First Court of Appeals in Houston reversed that decision, holding that the FALA was inapplicable because Zuniga “was not a participant in a farm animal activity” for whom the FALA is applicable. [Read prior blog post here.] In particular, the appellate court held that Zuniga was an employee, rather than an independent contractor, and that an employee was not a “participant” under the FALA. The Waaks sought review from the Texas Supreme Court. Their petition was granted.
Farm Animal Liability Act
In 1995, the Texas Legislature passed the Texas Equine Act, which essentially provided that horse owners were not liable for participants’ injuries that were due to the inherent risks of being involved with horses. Texas was the 26th state to enact this type of law. Currently, 48 states have some version on the books.
In 2011, the Equine Act was amended to be called the Farm Animal Liability Act. In addition to equine, the FALA applies to bovines, sheep, goats, pigs, hogs, ratites, ostriches, rheas, emus, chicken, and other fowl. The FALA limits the liability of “any person, including a farm animal activity sponsor or farm animal professional livestock producer, livestock show participant, or livestock show sponsor, is not liable for property damage or damages arising from the personal injury or death of a participant in a farm animal activity or livestock show if the property damage, injury, or death results from the dangers or conditions that are an inherent risk of a farm animal activity or the showing of an animal on a competitive basis in a livestock show…” The act goes on to provide that inherent risks include: “(1) the propensity of a farm animal or livestock animal to behave in ways that may result in personal injury or death to a person on or around it; (2) the unpredictability of a farm animal’s or livestock animal’s reaction to sound, a sudden movement, or an unfamiliar object, person, or other animal; (3) with respect to farm animal activities involving equine animals, certain land conditions and hazards, including surface and subsurface conditions; (4) a collision with another animal or an object; or (5) the potential of a participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to injury to the participant or another, including failing to maintain control over a farm animal or livestock animal or not acting within the participant’s ability.”
Supreme Court Opinion
The Texas Supreme Court held that the FALA does not apply to injured ranchers or ranch hands. [Read full opinion here.]
First, the Court noted that the livestock examples within the statutory definitions related to livestock shows. In particular, they cited to the statutory definitions of “livestock show” and “livestock show sponsor.” The Court believes that the examples “confine the statute’s protections to the contact of shows, rides, exhibitions, competitions, and the like.” The court then stated, “the categories listed as examples do not suggest that ranchers should also be included.”
Next, the Court looked to the FALA definition of “participant.” A “participant” is defined in part as “a person who engages in the 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.” The Court found that “to give any meaning to the listing of four examples–amateur, professional, paying, and for free–they must be read as typical of participants” and describes the kind of people who the Act treats as participants. In considering these examples in the context of a ranch hand, the court noted that while a ranch hand may be experienced or inexperienced, he or she would not be said to be professional or amateur, as would riders in a rodeo or show. The Court also stated that ranch hands do not pay to work, so the statement related to paying for the activity makes no sense in this context. Additionally, ranch hands do not usually work for free, making that portion of the definition seem inapplicable to the Court. Because of this, the Court held that “referring to a ranch hand as a ‘participant in a farm animal activity’ is inconsistent with the Act’s history and context.”
Third, the Court addressed the fact that in 2011, when the FALA was expanded to apply to all farm animals, the language of “handling, loading, or unloading” was added to the definition of “farm animal activity.” The Court did not find this evidence that the FALA should apply to ranching, noting that these words “obviously have meaning outside the ranching context.”
In addressing the dissenting opinion, the Court believes the dissent’s interpretation of the FALA would have “significant constitutional impediments.” The Court discusses the Texas Worker’s Compensation Act, which allows employers to opt out of the system. Employers who opt in pay for the workers’ compensation insurance and, in return, an injured employee is generally only allowed to make a claim under worker’s compensation, rather than a traditional court action. An employer is not required to be a subscriber to workers’ compensation insurance, but if they elect not to do so, the employee has the legal right to sue for negligence if he or she is injured. If the FALA applied to ranch hands, the Court reasoned, an injured employee of a nonsubscriber would not be permitted to sue his employer for negligence. This would leave injured ranch hands with no remedy–they would not be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, and they would have no common law cause of action. The Court noted “that is certainly a policy choice the legislature could make” but finds nothing in the history of the Texas Equine Act, FALA, or similar statutes in other states suggesting this was the intent of the legislature.
Thus, the Court held that “the Farm Animal Liability Act does not cover ranchers and ranch hands” and “it did not shield the Waaks from liability for their negligence, if any, resulting in Zuniga’s death.” The case will be remanded to the trial court to proceed on the question of whether the Waaks were negligent in Zuniga’s death.
Justices Blacklock & Boyd dissented from the Court’s opinion. [Read dissenting opinion here.]
The dissenting opinion began as follows: “As the Court reads the Farm Animal Liability Act, ‘any person’ means only some people. ‘Farm animal activities’ are not covered if they take place on ranches. And not just anybody who engaged in a ‘farm animal activity’ is a ‘person who engages in the activity.’ Who decides whether these limitations exist and how far they extend? Not the Legislature, which did not include any of them in the Act’s text. Instead, courts will decide when the statute’s words mean exactly what they say and when they mean something else. The unfortunate result is that people cannot simply read the Act–and others similarly drafted–and know what it means based on grammar and sentence structure. They must wait to see what the courts make of it.” Instead, the dissent argues, the decision should be made simply based upon on the text of the statute.
The FALA defines “participant” as “with respect to a farm animal activity, a person who engages in the 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…” “Engages in a farm animal activity” is defined as “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. The term includes management of a show involving farm animals. The term does not include being a spectator at a farm animal activity unless the spectator is in an unauthorized area and in immediate proximity to the farm animal activity.” The definition of a “farm animal activity” includes “riding, inspecting, evaluating, handling, loading, or unloading a farm animal belonging to another, without regard to whether the owner receives monetary consideration or other thing of value for the use of the farm animal or permits a prospective purchaser of the farm animal to ride, inspect, evaluate, handle, load, or unload the farm animal.”
Applying these statutory definitions to the facts of the case, the dissent argued “there is little question the Act’s liability limitations apply.” The statute provides that “any person…is not liable.” Obviously, this includes the Waaks. The fact that the Waaks do not fall into one of the examples, set off by the word “including” does not mean the list is exhaustive and does not alter the meaning of “any person.”
Mr. Zuniga is a “participant” in a farm animal activity, because he “engaged in the activity” of loading and unloading cattle. The fact that “engaged in the activity” is followed by a clause including “without regard to” certain considerations does not change the operative language. In fact, the use of “without regard to” is a statement indicating that the listed factors, such as professional or amateur, paid or free, should not be considered at all.
Further, the dissent pointed out, the text of the FALA does not exclude any category of people, such as ranchers or ranch hands. There is no exception for ranch work. Further, there is no exception making the law inapplicable to an employee–which the Legislature clearly knows how to do as it did expressly exclude employees under the Texas AgriTourism Act. The dissenting justices also noted “it would have been very easy to write a statute that applies only at recreational livestock events, a statute that covers only horseshoeing, veterinary treatment, and loading and unloading animals at certain events, not ranches.” But the Legislature did not do so.
“The Legislatures chosen words have only one meaning, and we have no license to look behind those words for hidden exceptions. Our job is simply to read the words and apply them.”
Lastly, the dissent addressed the issue raised by the majority opinion of injured ranch hands being left without remedy. The dissent pointed out that the FALA has a list of exceptions which, if proven, would allow a suit involving a ranch hand to proceed to trial. Also, there is no provision in statute that would expressly prohibit a nonsubscribing employer from raising the FALA defense.
Thus, the dissent would “stick strictly to the statutory text” and dismiss the case because Mr. Zuniga was a “participant” engaged in a “farm animal activity,” making the FALA a valid defense. They would reverse and remand the case for the consideration of whether any exceptions to the FALA apply.
This is a very important decision, as it limits the FALA from applying to working ranches. Previously, I read the FALA as applying to activities like moving cattle, branding, and processing calves. This decision, however, expressly excludes injured ranchers or ranch hands. Instead, it appears the Texas Supreme Court believes the defense is limited to situations involving injuries at livestock or horse shows, rodeos, exhibitions, competitions, trail rides, and riding lessons.
Interestingly, in reaching its conclusion, the court drew the distinction between “ranchers and ranch hands” and other participants, rather than a distinction between an employee and an independent contractor. It was the later distinction that was made by the 1st Court of Appeals and in several prior cases addressing the applicability of the FALA. The Supreme Court did not address the distinction between employee or independent contractor whatsoever in reaching its conclusion.
Third, as the dissent pointed out, nothing in the language of the statute expressly excludes ranches from its protections. One portion of the statute that was not focused on was the definition and inclusion of “livestock producer.” The FALA defines a “livestock producer” as “a person who owns, breeds, raises, or feeds livestock animals.” It then provides that “any person, including a farm animal activity sponsor, farm animal professional, livestock producer, livestock show participant, or livestock show sponsor, is not liable…” If the majority was concerned about the categories of people included on this list, it seems that “livestock producer” certainly could intend to encompass a rancher who produces livestock.
Lastly, this case is an important reminder that every livestock operation and landowner in Texas needs to have liability insurance. Additionally, any operation with employees should consider carrying workers’ compensation insurance. This is especially critical if the operation has three or more employees. Under the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act, farm and ranch employers who do not subscribe with three or more employees are prohibited from raising certain defenses in wrongful death lawsuits.