To say it’s been a busy couple of weeks for the court system might be an understatement. Federal and state courts never fully shut down amid coronavirus concerns due to their work’s important nature, but there were undoubtedly delays caused by the unprecedented situation. Recently, numerous rulings were handed down as the country gets back on track.
Nationally, a Supreme Court ruling on DACA, an Obama-era immigration policy, has taken center stage. In the agricultural world, a federal court ruling prohibiting dicamba use, a herbicide used by many row crop farmers, has dominated the news. Neither decision will directly impact cattle producers, but several others will.
Trump administration was successful in dismantling Obama’s 2015 Waters of the United States rule and replacing it with a much more limited rule. Cattle producer organizations across the country vehemently fought the Obama rule and won a tremendous victory with its repeal. The Trump replacement rule went into effect Monday after weathering a last-minute court challenge from Democratic state attorney generals. The ruling and subsequent implementation were another fantastic victory in the fight against federal overreach, but legal challenges will likely continue, and in Colorado, a judge has already blocked implementation in that state.
Closer to home, a Texas appeals court also issued a ruling that will help protect your private property rights. If you receive The Cattleman magazine, you may remember a March 2020 article in which we discussed the Hlavinka v. HSC pipeline case and Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s amicus brief. I’m happy to report the First Court of Appeals in Houston validated two of the important arguments we made in the brief.
They questioned HCS’s common carrier status since the product was going to only one customer and stated that the trial court improperly granted HCS’s motion for summary judgment. They also took issue with the trial court’s refusal to allow Hlavinka’s testimony on the market value of the easement, saying his opinion of value could consider the existing pipeline corridors on his property.
We will have a more in-depth look at the case in an upcoming issue of The Cattleman magazine, so stay tuned. We also expect that the saga will continue, as the oil and gas industry will likely appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. We will be closely monitoring the case if it moves forward.
Also, last week the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling that wasn’t so good. They held that the Farm Animal Activity Act does not shield ranchers from liability for ranch employee injuries caused by livestock.
After a ranch hand was presumably trampled to death by a bull, his relatives sued the ranch owner for wrongful death. Most employers are shielded from this type of suit because they subscribe to worker’s compensation. Many ranchers, however, do not have workers comp, as was the case here. The ranch owner instead argued that he was covered by the Farm Animal Activity Act, which limits liabilities for those participating in activities with farm animals.
Unfortunately, the court took a very narrow view of the act. It said that the law only applies to those participating in activities they pay for or participate in for free, like someone who pays to go horseback riding. Because the ranch hand was handling livestock for pay, he did not fall within the act.
The association is carefully analyzing the decision and will evaluate the need for legislation to address the issue during the upcoming legislative session.
Last but not least was another federal ruling from a few weeks ago dealing with water. In that case, a property owner sued the Brazos Valley Groundwater Conservation District for allowing the City of Bryan to pump water from under his property without compensation. Meanwhile, the district denied a permit for him to pump the same amount of water, so he claimed the district was applying its rules unequally.
The appeals court mostly reversed the decision of the trial court. Importantly, it said the district does not have sovereign immunity as a government entity and can be sued when other administrative options are exhausted, like in this case, and also held that the property owner alleged sufficient facts to support claims, and the trial court should not have dismissed the case.
I think that that’s enough legal stuff for one post, so I will leave it there for now. We will continue to monitor all these cases and engage as necessary to support ranchers and landowners.
Until next time.
Jeremy Fuchs is the director of public affairs for Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.