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The Ferae Naturae Defense

| Aug 17, 2016 | Firm News

          The doctrine of ferae naturae is a common law defense limiting the liability of property owners for injuries caused by “animals of a wild nature or disposition.” In Union Pacific Railroad v. Nami, the Texas Supreme Court examined this defense in the context of an employer liability lawsuit.

          The plaintiff, a railroad worker, was employed to operate heavy machinery used to repair railroad lines near the Gulf of Mexico. This area was known for its mosquito problem, and the closest town, Sweeny, Texas, marketed itself as “the mosquito capital of the world.” At the jobsite, the mosquito problem was exacerbated by a strip of land running immediately next to the tracks that was un-mowed and contained tall grass, large weeds, and pools of standing water.

          Despite complaints, the site supervisors did not correct the issues, and the Plaintiff contracted West Nile Virus.

          Plaintiff’s illness left him with long-term disabilities and unable to return to work. He filed suit against his employer under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) for failure to provide a safe workplace, a legal theory grounded in negligence law. At trial, the jury apportioned 80% of the responsibility to the employer, 20% responsibility on the employee himself, and awarded $752K in damages. The Appellate Court affirmed.

          The Texas Supreme Court reversed and rendered judgment for the employer.

          Relying on US Supreme Court precedent, the Court held that common-law defenses to liability for negligence, including the doctrine of ferae naturae, apply to FELA suits. Under the facts of this case, the doctrine of ferae naturae precluded employer liability.

          The Court explained, with regard to the condition of the property, an employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace is the same as the duty owed by a property owner to an invitee. Under ferae naturae, property owners are only liable for the harm caused by wild animals in their possession. Significantly, the mere “possession of land does not carry with it possession of the indigenous wild animals which are upon it.”

          Here, the Court found (1) the prevalence of mosquitos in and around the jobsite was obvious, (2) the risk of contracting West Nile virus was very slight, (3) there was no evidence that the mosquitos were trapped at the jobsite, (4) the employer did nothing to attract the mosquitoes, and (5) the employer took reasonable steps to warn all its employees of the risk of infection by issuing safety bulletins and discussing the issue at safety meetings. Therefore, the Court reasoned that the employer owed no duty to prevent the infection.

Takeaways:

· Unless expressly barred by statute, common-law defenses to negligence apply to actions brought under FELA; and

· Generally, ferae naturae will preclude liability for a property owner or employer for any harm caused by wild animals (including insects), unless:

          o The animal is in the possession of the landowner/employer;

          o The landowner/employer attracts the animal to the property; or

          o The landowner/employer knows of an unreasonable risk and fails to mitigate or warn of the risk.

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