Are Employers Immune from Liability for Employees' Horse-Related Injuries in Texas?

In general, a defendant can only be immune from suit in a Texas horse-related injury case if the plaintiff was a “participant in a farm animal activity or livestock show” when the injuries occurred.

Chapter 87 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code (the “Act”) was amended in 2011 to, among other things, include farm animals other than equines. However, the “participant” requirement did not change in 2011.  Neither the former nor the current version of the Act specifically states whether or not employees of equine activity sponsors are considered “participants in a farm animal activity or livestock show” under the Act.

The 1st Court of Appeals in Houston is the only Texas court to have taken up this issue (Dodge v. Durdin, 2005).  In that case, Deborah Dodge sued her employers, Magestic Moments Stables, et al, after a horse kicked her in the abdomen as she was administering paste-wormer at the direction of her employer. Dodge claimed that she incurred $4,000 in medical bills as a result of her injuries, and that her employers’ negligence was the proximate cause of her damages. 

Majestic Moments claimed that Dodge's suit was barred by the Act.  The trial court agreed, and dismissed the case.  On appeal, the 1st Court of Appeals disagreed that the Act applied to an employer / employee relationship.

This warning sign should not be a "news flash" to anyone.

Citing its review of legislative intent, together with the duties assigned to Texas employers under the Texas Labor Code, the 1st Court of Appeals held that, “the Equine Act applies to consumers and not to employees and that Dodge is therefore not a ‘participant’ under the Equine Act.” 

Workers’ compensation did not cover Dodge’s alleged injures. Unlike employers in many states, Texas employers are able to opt out of the workers’ compensation system. For more information, see this post.

In Dodge, the 1st Court of Appeals noted that the only other Texas court to have addressed the definition of “participant” was the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals in Johnson v. Smith (2002). In that case, the Corpus Christi court acknowledged that an independent contractor—not an employee—in charge of breeding and handling stallions was a participant under the Act.  The 1st Court of Appeals distinguished the Johnson case from the Dodge case on its facts.

Neither the Dodge nor the Johnson case were appealed to the Supreme Court. 

The Texas Supreme Court has not yet addressed whether or not an employee or independent contractor who is injured while working with horses on their employer’s premises is a “participant” for purposes of the Act.  Until the Supreme Court takes up this issue or the Legislature clarifies it, this issue continues to be somewhat unsettled in Texas. Texas equine businesses should therefore not rely upon the Act to provide immunity from suits brought by employees or independent contractors. 

Businesses can take several steps to minimize liability risk in this area, including 1) procuring insurance to cover employee or independent contractor injuries; 2) having employees or independent contractors sign liability releases; and 3) forming limited liability entities through which employees and independent contractors are retained.

A special thank you to reader Lois Mermelstein, Esq. of Austin, Texas for submitting this topic suggestion.

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