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Ranch hand’s family may sue for wrongful death

By Angela Childers

The family of a ranch worker crushed to death by a bull is not precluded from seeking wrongful death and survival claims from the ranch, the Texas Supreme Court held Friday.

In Waak v. Rodriguez, the court affirmed in a 6-2 decision an appellate court’s ruling that ranch hands are not included in the Texas Farm Animal Activity Act and the deceased rancher’s family’s claims are not barred by the act.

Raul Zuniga worked as a ranch hand on the Carmine Charolais Ranch in Fayette County, Texas. He lived on-site and his duties included working cattle, performing landscaping and cutting hay.

In October 2013, while Mr. Zuniga was moving 20 head of cattle — an activity he had done many times — a bull trampled him to death. His parents and surviving children sued the ranch owners for wrongful death and survival claims. The ranch did not have workers compensation insurance.

A trial court held that the Farm Animal Activity Act barred the Zuniga family’s claims. However, a Texas appellate court reversed that decision, holding that the Act does not apply to ranchers or ranch hands. The Texas Supreme Court agreed, affirming the appellate court’s decision.

Texas farm Animal Activity Act limits liability for injury to an individual participating in a farm animal activity or livestock show that results from an “inherent risk” of those activities. The act identified a “participant” as “a person who engages in an equine activity, without regard to whether the person is an amateur or professional or whether the person pays for the activity or participates in the activity for free” and details “activity” in a non-exhaustive list that includes animal shows, fairs, hunting, rodeos, trail riding, livestock shows, handling and teaching.

The court held that considering a ranch hand as a “participant in a farm animal activity” is inconsistent with the act’s history and context, and does not shield the ranch owners from liability for any alleged negligence that resulted in Mr. Zuniga’s death.

The court also noted that if the act included ranch hands, it would essentially deny those injured workers of “any remedy whatsoever for their injuries” if the ranch opted out of workers compensation insurance.

Two justices dissented from the majority, holding that the act did not exclude people who handle, load or unload farm animals and that the majority should have stuck “strictly to the statutory text, even when the result is unexpected or seems unfair.”

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