Automobile Accidents Involving Livestock
In Texas, it is not uncommon for motorists to have accidents involving a horse, cow, sheep, or other type of livestock animal. In accidents between livestock and automobiles, drivers and their passengers can suffer horrific live-changing injuries. In some cases, these accidents can kill motorists. When animals are allowed to roam on public roadways, the accidents can have devastating consequences. It is for this reason that owners of livestock must be very careful in monitoring the enclosures and fencing that keeps cattle from roadways.
The legal analysis involving livestock accidents is fact and county specific. Texas law, with respect to the duty that landowners owe with respect to restraining horses and other animals, has slowly evolved over the history of the state. As a result, and because of the inconsistency among counties, case law in this area has at times appeared inconsistent and it has been difficult to determine a clear and identifiable standard. However, at the present time, if a party can determine which law is applicable in the county at issue, the law is relatively straightforward. A proper understanding of “livestock law” requires a review of its history in Texas and examination of the present day law.
I. History of Texas Livestock Law
Traditionally, Texas has never recognized the common law rule requiring restraint of livestock by enclosure. Levesque v. Wilkens, 57 S.W.3d 499, 502 (Tex.App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2001, no pet.); Clarendon Land, Inv. & Agency Co. v. McClelland, 23 S.W. 576, 577 (Tex. 1896). The owner of cattle or stock in Texas had the freedom to allow those animals to roam without liability for damages the animals caused as trespassers upon the land of others. Id. As a general rule, the rejection of the common law duty of animal owners to restrain their livestock rendered Texas a “free range” state. Id.
The framers of the 1876 Texas Constitution expressly delegated to the Texas Legislature the power to deviate from the free range rule by passing laws for the regulation and fencing of livestock. Tex. Const., art. XVI, § 23. Accordingly, the legislature has, pursuant to its constitutional grant of authority, established and repeatedly revised and amended its own scheme for determining when duties of restraint should or should not be imposed upon livestock owners. Levesque, 57 S.W.3d at 503. The legislature’s comprehensive scheme is now addressed through Chapter 43 of the Texas Agricultural Code. The relevant portions of the statute are discussed below.
Initially, in 1935, the legislature prohibited livestock owners from permitting their animals from roaming unattended on the right-of-way of a highway that had fences on both sides and provided for criminal penalties for the violation of the statute. Gibbs v. Jackson, 990 S.W.2d 745 (Tex. 1999). Apparently, the legislature passed this provision in response to the proliferation of automobiles in Texas. Id. Later, in 1959, the legislature limited the prohibition to “knowingly” permitting animals to roam at large and expanded the prohibition to all U.S. highways and state highways, whether the adjacent land was fenced or not, but the legislature specifically excluded farm-to-market roads. Id. This was the law for every county and it predated what has become known as local stock laws. Essentially, the Legislature recognized the need to impose some duty on landowners; however, the standard is a “knowingly” standard and only applies to “highways” as defined in the statute.
Since that time, the Legislature perhaps recognized the need to increase the duty that a landowners owes with regard to livestock. However, the Legislature left it up to each individual county to decide, by election, whether to enact a law that places a higher duty on their citizens. When enacted, the law of each county is known as a “stock law” and is uniform among those counties that have voted to enforce the law. As a result, there are two very different duties owed by a landowner depending on whether the county in which they reside has enacted a “stock law.”
Two types of statutes in Texas address an owner’s obligation regarding livestock:
- Section 143.102 of the Agriculture Code, which prohibits all owners of livestock from knowingly allowing their animals to roam at large on the right of way of a state or federal highway in Texas; and
- Local stock laws in counties that have adopted the language set forth in Section 143.074, which states that a person may not permit an animal of the certain class mentioned to run at large anywhere, i.e. there is no limitation to highways as defined in the statute. McNeal v. Thomas, 2005 Tex. App. LEXIS 1338 (Tex. App.–Corpus Christi, 2005). The first statute applies in counties that have not adopted the stock law and the second, obviously, applies in counties that have elected to adopt the stock law. The content of those two (2) statutes is provided as follows:
“TEX. AGRIC. CODE §143.102 (COUNTIES THAT HAVE NO STOCK LAW): A person who owns or has responsibility for the control of a horse, mule, donkey, cow, bull, steer, hog, sheep, or goat may not knowingly permit the animal to traverse or roam at large, unattended, on the right-of-way of a highway.TEX. AGRIC. CODE § 143.074 (COUNTIES THAT HAVE A STOCK LAW): If a majority of votes in an election are cast against the proposition, this sub-chapter is adopted and, after the thirtieth (30) day following the date on which the proclamation of results is issued, a person may not permit any animal of the class mentioned in the proclamation to run at large in the county or area in which the election was held.”
II. Duty and Standard Applied Where a Stock Law has Been Enacted
The language of the stock law contained in Section 143.074 is identified above. Clearly this language imposes a greater duty on a landowner in a county that has enacted a stock law than in a county that has not. As the Texas Supreme Court stated, “the Texas Legislature has not been oblivious to safety concerns raised by roaming livestock.” Gibbs v. Jackson, 990 S.W.2d 745, 750 (Tex. 1999).
Section 143.074 sets forth the language that counties must include in their stock law when, and if, they are enacted. This statute is not a penal statute; rather, it creates a duty on the keepers of livestock in counties that have adopted the stock laws to restrain their cattle. Goode v. Bauer, 109 S.W.3d 788, 792 (Tex. App.–Corpus Christi, 2003, pet. denied). This statute is designed to protect all persons and property from wandering animals, not just motorists. Id. While the court in Goode recognized that Section 143.074 does not set forth a standard of care (the statute says, “may not permit”), the court recognized that liability for violation of the stock laws has always required more proof or showing of culpability than the mere presence of a defendant’s animal in a forbidden place. Id.
For this proposition, the court cited, at length, a ninety year old case in which the Texas Supreme Court stated:
“While the stock law is intended to require owners to confine animals, the running at large of which is prohibited, and one who permits them to run at large violates the law, it is true, nevertheless, that such animals may often escape without fault on the part of their owners, when the latter will be guilty of no offense of the law…But we cannot see how the stock law could so operate against one guilty of no violation of it; and, as before shown, the mere fact that an animal is at large is not necessarily a violation.”
Id. citing Tex. & Pac. Ry. Co. v. Webb, 102 Tex. 210 (Tex. 1908). The stock law itself imposes a duty on the landowner and, as cited above, Texas courts have found that the standard to be used to evaluate whether a defendant breached that duty is the negligence standard. As a result, a plaintiff must show that a defendant breached the duty of care imposed by the stock law by failing to take actions to restrain livestock that a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances would have taken.
III. Duty and Standard Applied Where No Stock Law has Been Enacted
Although not an issue based upon the facts of our case, because of the relative frequency of these “cow cases,” I have decided to include some analysis on the standard of care that is imposed on a landowner in a county that has not enacted the local stock law. Given the relatively straightforward language of the statute, it is not surprising that the courts have held that, in the absence of any local stock law, the plaintiff must prove that the owner knowingly allowed his livestock to run at large in order to impose liability on the owner. In Palmer v. Hinders, 2000 Tex.App. Lexis 3657 (Tex.App.–Amarillo 2000, no pet.), an unpublished opinion, the Amarillo Court of Appeals agreed that no common law duty exists preventing livestock from roaming freely in Texas.
In Palmer, the defendant moved for summary judgment stating that the law only requires that an owner not “knowingly” permit livestock to roam onto highways. The court agreed that this was an accurate statement of the law, and upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to present any evidence that the defendant had knowingly allowed his livestock to roam on a public highway.
In Gibbs v. Jackson, the Texas Supreme Court analyzed an accident that occurred on a farm-to-market road in a county that had not adopted a local stock law. The Court held that, since the Texas Agricultural Code did not address farm-to-market roads and the county had not adopted the stock law, the defendant had no common law duty to restrain his cattle, and the Court reversed and rendered judgment that the plaintiff take nothing. Interestingly, however, the Court stated that “Texas courts have relied upon [the Texas Agricultural Code and local stock laws] to hold or assume that livestock owners may be liable for negligence if their animals” stray onto roads that are covered by the statute. Id. at 749.
Based upon the plain meaning of the statute and Texas case law, if no stock law exists, then the court will require the plaintiff to prove the knowing requirement. In addition, the statute only applies to the presence of livestock on highways, as defined in the statute.
If you have been injured or lost a loved one in an automobile accident involving livestock, it is important to hire a car accident attorney that understands the role that county laws and state laws play, in conjunction, to establish liability in these cases. If you need to speak to a lawyer regarding an accident involving livestock, contact Hill Law Firm today.