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The Itsy Bitsy Spider: Texas Supreme Court Decision on the Farae Naturae Doctrine

| Sep 30, 2020 | Firm News

The farae naturae doctrine, also known as the wild animal doctrine, protects the property owner from a claim by an invitee claiming that the owner has a duty to warn. Specifically, it limits the liability of an owner for any harm caused by indigenous animals on the owner’s property.

Recently, in Homer Hillis v. Henry McCall [18-1065, 2020 WL 1233348, at *1 (Tex. Mar. 13, 2020), reh’g denied (June 12, 2020)], the Texas Supreme Court examined this defense in the context of a premise liability lawsuit.

Homer Hillis owned a bread and breakfast in Fredericksburg, Texas. Hillis leased a cabin on the property to Henry McCall, and in return McCall served as a maintenance man. Both McCall and Hillis testified to seeing spiders on the property before, and Hillis said that housekeepers were responsible for using “bug bombs” when needed while they were preparing rooms. On December 12, 2014 Hillis asked McCall to check out the dishwasher and assess whether there was a leak. While McCall was checking the sink, he was bitten by a brown recluse spider — a venomous spider native to Texas.

McCall sued Hillis for negligence under a premise liability theory stating that the presence of the brown recluse spiders on his property “constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition.” McCall argued that Hillis had a duty to warn or make the property safe and his breach of that duty led to McCall’s injury. Hillis filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that ferae naturae doctrine protected him from liability and the trial court granted the motion.

The San Antonio Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and concluded that Hillis “knew or should have known of an unreasonable risk of harm posed by the spiders,” and did meet his burden of proof under the ferae naturae doctrine.

However, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and reversed the Court of Appeals. Specifically, the Court reasoned that, although Hillis was aware of spiders on his property, he did not know that there were brown recluses on his property. Thus, he did not know or have reason to know about an unreasonable risk of harm presented by the brown recluse spiders. Additionally, both McCall and Hillis testified to seeing spiders, so it is not reasonable to hold Hillis accountable for not warning McCall about the spiders that McCall had seen on his own and could have realized were venomous. Lastly, the Court reasoned that it is not reasonable to impose a duty on an owner to warn invitees about things already known to the invitee. The Court emphasized that an owner has a “duty to warn about or [make] safe from unreasonably dangerous conditions about which the owner knows or has reason to know but the invitee does not.” In this case, McCall knew about the presence of spiders; however, the presence of spiders alone did not amount to an unreasonable risk of harm given that Hillis did not know they were venomous spiders.

This opinion re-emphasizes that:

    1. Landowners, generally, have a duty to make safe or warn against unreasonably dangerous conditions of which the landowner is, or reasonably should have been, aware;
    2. Landowners do not have a duty to warn against hazards that are open and obvious, and;
    3. Landowners do not have a duty to warn about risks or hazards already known to the invitee.

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