Introduction. My 13 year old son and I were recently traveling through a small Texas town and saw a sign that said computers and guns for sale. Where else but Texas would you find this? Of course, we still have remnants of the open range laws in our great state.
This brings me to the interesting SCOTX case of Pruski v. Garcia in which the court held that a rancher was not liable for automobile accident property damages and injuries caused by the rancher’s bull since the rancher did not knowingly permit his bull to wander onto the highway. 594 S.W.3d 322 (Tex. 2020). In explaining its reasoning the court started with the premise that Texas is an open range state except to the extent limited by statute.
Texas open range laws. “From the time of the Republic of Texas, the default rule in this state has been that livestock owners may allow their animals to run at large.1 Early on, Texas rejected altogether the English common-law duty to keep livestock confined. As this Court observed in 1893:
Neither the courts nor the legislature of this state ha[d] ever recognized the rule of the common law of England which requires every man to restrain his cattle either by tethering or by inclosure…. It is the right of every owner of domestic animals in this State, not known to be diseased, vicious, or “breachy,” to allow them to run at large…”
The Court then stated:
Like all common-law rules, however, Texas’s free-range rule yields to legislative enactments to the contrary. Id. at 748 (describing history of legislative departures from free-range rule). The 1876 Constitution specifically authorized the Legislature to deviate from the free-range rule by passing laws regulating fences and livestock. Tex. Const. art. XVI, §§ 22, 23.
Pruski v. Garcia, supra, * 323.
Factual background and analysis. The Plaintiff in this case was driving his pickup on State Highway 123 in Wilson County. A bull owned by the Defendant escaped from a fenced pasture and wandered onto a state highway. The Plaintiff’s truck collided with the bull, damaging Plaintiff’s truck and injuring the Plaintiff. The poor lost bull died from the collision.
Apparently, the bull was able to escape through a gate on the rancher’s property because of a broken latch. The question was whether the rancher was liable for the Plaintiff’s resulting injuries and property damages. The court found that, since this bull wandered onto a state highway, the standard set forth in Texas Agriculture Code § 143.102 applied under the pleadings of this case.
“The statute provides that a livestock owner “may not knowingly permit [a horse, mule, donkey, cow, bull, steer, hog, sheep, or goat] to traverse or roam at large, unattended, on the right-of-way of a highway.” TEX. AGRIC. CODE § 143.102 (emphasis added). In order for there to be any liability under this provision, whether civil or criminal, the defendant must “knowingly permit” the animal to roam at large.”
The Court found that since there was no issue of material fact concerning whether the Plaintiff knowingly permitted his bull to roam at large, then the trial court was correct in granting summary judgment as a matter of law against the Plaintiff and in favor of the rancher.
Conclusion. Nowhere but Texas does a court begin its legal opinion with the history of the state’s open range laws. And, under the facts and pleadings of this case, a motorist injured on a Texas state highway who suffers automobile damages or injures because of livestock roaming onto a state highway must prove that the owner of the livestock knowingly permitted the livestock to roam onto the highway.