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.

In a Nutshell: Texas Recreational Use Statute

September will bring the opening of Texas bird hunting season and (hopefully) the onset of cooler weather. This means that many Texans may soon be emerging from air-conditioned vehicles and buildings to enjoy outdoor activities. Texas land owners who allow others to use their land for trail riding, hunting, or other recreational uses should be aware of when Texas law says they may be held liable for injuries arising from the use of their property. 

The applicable legal standard is found in the Texas Recreational Use Statute (RUS) (Chapter 75 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code). A link to the full language of the statute can be found here

The RUS was originally enacted in 1965 to limit the liability of Texas land owners who allow others to use their land for hunting, fishing or camping. The RUS has been amended many times over the years to expand the immunity and to broaden the scope of the law. The current law is summarized below:

  •  Limits liability of land owners, lessees, and occupants of agricultural land and other real property. All references to “land owners” below includes also lessees and other occupants;
  • Provides that if land owners give permission to others to use the land for recreational purposes, the land owner is not liable to the invitee unless the land owner was grossly negligent, acted with malicious intent, or acted in bad faith;
  • Provides that a land owner is not liable for any injury to a trespasser except for willful or wanton acts or gross negligence by the land owner;
  • Covers any activity associated with enjoying nature or the outdoors;
  • Covers a land owner who meets one of the following tests: (1) does not charge for entry to the premises; (2) charges for entry to the premises, but the total charges collected in the previous calendar year were not more than 20 times the total amount of ad valorem taxes imposed on the premises; or (3) has premises liability insurance coverage in effect that meets the statutory requirements($1 million for each occurrence of bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each occurrence of property damage or destruction);
  • The following damages caps apply to claims against owners of agricultural land if they are covered by premises liability insurance that meets the statutory requirements:1) $500,000 in damages per person; 2) $1 million for each occurrence of bodily injury or death; and 3) $100,000 for each occurrence of damage to or destruction of property.

Tips to avoid liability: Post “No Trespassing” signs in conspicuous areas around your property. Do not charge invitees for using the land. Get premises liability insurance that meets the statute’s guidelines if you believe you will be allowing visitors to use your land for recreational purposes. Lastly, it never hurts to have invitees sign a liability release.

All 50 states have some form of Recreational Use Statute, and the law varies greatly from state to state.  To locate recreational use statutes in other states, see this site.  For more information on the Texas RUS, see this article from the Texas A&M Real Estate Center.

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