Texas is a unique state in that on certain stretches of road, you may encounter your typical array of commuter vehicles like sedans and SUVs, but on other stretches, you may encounter a large truck hauling livestock. Texas attorneys assert that every year, thousands of accidents involving animals occur on Texas highways and result in damage, injuries, and even death. To better understand this context, it helps to be familiar with Texas’s history as an open range state, stock law exemptions, stock law considerations, highway exemptions, and legal liability considerations when pursuing legal advice related to automotive accidents caused by animals in Texas.
Open Range State
It may be hard to imagine, but just 150 years ago, Texas was a massive land without fences. Both animals and people could roam from the Gulf Coast through the Great Plains to the Basin with very little standing in their way. Driving down any roadway today, however, passengers will see that the Lone Star State boasts thousands of miles of barbed wire fences. Despite cattle being behind these fences, it is important to note that Texas has largely stayed true to its former self and has evolved to what is considered an open-range state.
Where open-range laws exist, the burden to put up a fence usually falls on the person or property owner who wants to keep animals off of their property. The Texas Supreme Court kept the state’s fence-free legacy intact for the first time more than a century ago. In fact, just 20 years ago, in 1999, the state supreme court refused to adopt a common law requiring livestock owners to keep livestock off of all roadways. While the open-range doctrine was reaffirmed by the Texas Supreme Court just 20 years ago, there are exceptions to this rule. Notably, the two major exceptions in Texas are local stock laws and highways with state or federal designations.
“Stock Law” Exception
In 1876, the Texas Legislature realized that it was impractical to have open range everywhere. As a result, they passed a law that granted counties to hold local stock law elections. A stock law is a specific law that forbids certain kinds of livestock from running through a county or designated area of a county. Stock laws typically serve the purpose of changing an area from open range to closed range. The Texas Agriculture Code permits local governments to hold elections aimed at preventing animals from running at large. Typically, local stock laws will prohibit the following animals from running at large:
Stock Law Considerations
Because stock laws can be enacted countywide or in certain precincts or towns, Texas is a patchwork of open-range and closed range laws. In addition, there is no central database of where stock laws have been enacted. If you are driving in unfamiliar territory, you may be unsure of your rights in the event of a livestock crash. One way to find out is to contact a county clerk. Additionally, in some cases stock laws are unenforceable. The Texas Agriculture Code provides very specific rules on how stock laws can appear on a ballot. The code separates livestock animals into different subsections. When a local government enacts stock laws, it must ensure that the animals in different subsections are not combined on the ballot. In order for a stock law to be valid, the livestock on a ballot should come from the same subchapter in the Texas Agriculture code.
People who live in urban areas may not have a clue that Texas is an open-range state. In fact, many people don’t think to watch out for livestock while driving on high-speed Texas highways, which are more traveled and carry a much higher speed than farm-to-market roads. As such, requiring a person to control their livestock if their property is adjacent to a highway is in the interest of public safety. By law, owners have a responsibility to keep livestock from roaming on state and federal highways. Otherwise, owners may face a small fine. Further, when livestock owners fail to meet this duty, they open themselves up to liability claims when a person suffers an injury. The law prohibits the following animals from roaming freely along highways:
- The landowner was aware that the fences were unable to withstand inclement weather.
- The landowner knew that cattle escaped through weak fences many times before.
- Police previously informed the property owner of their loose cattle on the roadway.
- The landowner failed to inspect fences.
Determining whether livestock owners are liable for injuries from accidents caused by livestock can be challenging. While legal precedent on the issue may exist in some jurisdictions, other areas do not have court rulings making it possible for car accident attorneys to prove liability. A fine line of liability may exist given state laws and local ordinances which are often very fact-specific. Given the complexity of the application of laws and ordinances, Texas attorneys agree that anyone injured in an accident involving livestock should seek the services of car accident lawyers who are familiar with open range and stock laws. These two laws vary by county and dictate liability if an accident occurs. Who is responsible for the injuries sustained and the damage to the vehicle? That all depends where the accident occurred and which laws or statutes were in force at that location.
- If the location of the accident was a farm-to-market (FM) road where no stock laws were in existence, the open range rule of common law would mean that the owner of the animal would not be subject to any liability in the accident.
- If the location of the accident was a state or federal highway, it’s possible the animal owner could be held liable if it is determined they knowingly permitted the animal to run free on the roadway. It wouldn’t matter if there was a local stock law in effect or not.
- If the accident took place on a farm-to-market road where there was a stock law in effect, the stock law would determine whether there was any liability on the part of the livestock owner. Since there are differences in each local stock law, there would be a need to review the exact provisions that apply in the location where the accident happened.
Texas has more than 80,000 miles of highway, and nearly 30,000 of that is US and state highways. It is important to understand that you have rights after any kind of crash—including those involving livestock. A qualified roaming livestock crash attorney can help you determine the following questions:
- Does a stock law exist in the area of my crash?
- What animals are covered by the local stock law?
- Does the property permit the animals to run at large?