Introduction. In this tragic case involving interesting legal issues, a ranch hand was killed when he was trampled by cattle while working for a ranch. The ranch hand’s surviving parents and children sued the ranch for wrongful death and survival claims. The ranch was a nonsubscriber under the Texas Workers Compensation Act. However, the trial court tossed the family’s case on summary judgment under an obscure statute known as the Texas Farm Animal Activity Act. The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) held that the Act did not apply and affirmed the appellate court’s decision to overturn the trial court’s judgment. This will allow the family to have their day in court. Waak v. Rodriguez, 603 S.W.3d 103 (Tex. 2020)

Background and analysis. In October 2013, the ranch owners asked the ranch hand to move 20 head of cattle. After moving the cattle, the ranch hand called the owners to confirm that he should move the 3 remaining cattle in the barn– a 2,000 pound bull, a cow and a calf. The owners confirmed that this should be done. When the owners returned home, they found the ranch hand lying dead and the cattle were still in the barn. The medical examiner found the cause of death to be “blunt force and crush injuries” resulting from force like being trampled by a large animal. The trial court granted the owner’s motion for summary judgment against the ranch hand’s family on the grounds that the Farm Animal Activity Act barred the family’s claims. The court of appeals reversed and SCOTX granted petition for review to make a final determination.

In discussing the Act in question, SCOTX stated:

The Texas Farm Animal Activity Act1 limits liability for injury to “a participant in a farm animal activity or livestock show” that results from an “inherent risk” of such activities,2 “whether the person is an amateur or professional or … pays … or participates … for free”.3 A divided court of appeals held that the Act does not apply to ranchers and ranch hands.4 We agree and affirm the court’s judgment.”

Waak v. Rodriguez, 603 S.W.3d 103, 104 (Tex. 2020).

 SCOTX went on to discuss the history of the Act and found that it did not apply to a ranch hand injured while working in the normal course and scope of employment for his ranch employer.

SCOTX also discussed the ranch’s failure to purchase workers compensation insurance.

The workers’ compensation system throughout the country strikes a balance between employers’ and employees’ respective interests in compensating workplace injuries. The employee cannot sue the employer on common law claims, thereby relieving the employer of defending and paying them, but in return, the employer must pay the employee standardized insurance benefits regardless of fault.49 Each pays or receives something, though perhaps more or less than under the common law.”

Waak v. Rodriguez, 603 S.W.3d 103, 110 (Tex. 2020).

Since the ranch owners chose not to provide workers compensation benefits to the ranch hand and his family, the ranch was not afforded protection from liability under the Texas Workers Compensation Act.

Conclusion and lessons learned. SCOTX found that the court of appeals correctly concluded that the Farm Animal Act does not apply in this case. This cleared the way for the family to have their day in court for the loss of their son and father. As discussed in previous blog articles, a business owner who fails to purchase workers compensation insurance proceeds at his or her own peril. Not only does this open the door for an injured employee to sue the business owner for on the job injuries, but under Texas law the owner waives the right to assert any common law defenses to the on the job injury claims.