The Law

A Ranch Hand Was Mauled and Killed by a Bull. The Lack of WC Benefits Left His Family Fighting in Court

One rancher failed to provide workers' compensation for the family of a deceased employee, so the family turned to the legal system.
By: | September 28, 2018

At a ranch in Fayette County, Texas, ranch hand Raul Amparo Zuniga Ortiz Jr. was tasked with moving a herd of 20 cattle from one pasture to another. Within the herd were one calf and one bull.

What was considered a typical task for Zuniga soon took a turn for the worse. The bull charged Zuniga, fatally wounding him. Zuniga’s family was devastated. Making the tragedy worse, the ranch owners, Conway and Marlene Waak, did not carry workers’ compensation insurance for their employees.

The Zunigas took the Waaks to court.

The family sought to recover damages for Zuniga’s personal injuries and death, asserting wrongful death and survival claims in the suit’s petition. They claimed negligence on the Waaks’ part, because the ranch owners failed to provide proper safety equipment and coverage.

The Waaks filed a partial motion for summary judgment, arguing the incident fell under and was protected by the Farm Animal Activities Act (FAAA). This act provides liability for injuries arising out of certain farm activities in the form of a waiver of liability.

The FAAA also states it does not apply to employees. The Waaks used this to form their case, and, in turn, argued Zuniga was only an independent contractor.
Zuniga’s family countered, holding to the fact that Zuniga was indeed a “farm and ranch hand” under the employment of the Waaks.

A trial judge granted summary judgment to the Waaks, bringing the case to appellate court. Despite the Waaks’ continued claims that Zuniga and two of the other ranch hands were independent contractors, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case. In its research, the court found that in addition to Zuniga, the Waaks employed three other ranch hands at the same time and did not provide workers’ compensation to any of them. Under the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act, the Waaks were not required to provide such benefits if they had less than three workers. But together, they had four.

Scorecard: The Zuniga family’s case will proceed to court, due to questions bearing on Zuniga’s scope of employment and the Waaks’ duty of ordinary care as employers.

Takeaway: Businesses, especially in industries where strenuous work is part of the job, should invest in workers’ compensation insurance. Protecting employees is part of an employer’s due diligence.

Autumn Demberger is the content strategist at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected].

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