By David S. Jones, Senior Editor, Real Estate Center
Release No. 18-0711

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. (Real Estate Center) — When it comes to responsibility for warning guests about dangerous indigenous animals and insects, Texas statutory law generally protects landowners from claims resulting from injuries received from naturally occurring hazards.

“Appellate decisions focus on a term called ferae naturae or ‘free in nature,’” says attorney Judon Fambrough with the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. “Basically, if the critter is free in nature and in its natural habitat, there is no duty to warn of its presence.”

The precedent was set in a 1963 case involving a minor who fell from a billboard when stung by wasps. The parents sued the company responsible for maintaining the billboard for failing to warn people or make the area safe. The court ruled the ferae naturae doctrine barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim.

In general, said the court, the law does not require an owner or possessor of land to anticipate the presence of or guard invitees against the harm from wild animals. That does not apply if the owner or possessor has reduced the wild animals to possession, harbors them or has introduced non-indigenous wild animals onto the premises.

The court went further by ruling on issues of interest to most Texas landowners.

“Artificial conditions, such as farm ponds, frequently become the abode of poisonous snakes, and stinging insects are common in hunting lodges and summer homes, but no cases have been found where a duty of ordinary care (negligence) has been imposed on the owner or possessor of such premises,” the ruling stated.

A 1973 federal district court ruling also supported the landowner. An independent logging contractor sued a paper company for failing to warn him of the presence of Lyme disease on the property where he worked. The logger contracted the disease after being bitten by ticks on the defendant’s land.

The federal court ruled that although the defendant owed the plaintiff the duty to warn of hidden dangers or defects, the duty did not include a warning of the presence of indigenous wild animals, such as ticks.

As a Texas Supreme Court judge put it, “The owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river or even a concealed rattlesnake.”

Taking note that 97 percent of Texas is privately owned, the Texas legislature sought to encourage landowners to open their gates to the public. The so-called Recreational Guest Statute was the result.

The law greatly diminishes landowners’ liability when their property is used for recreational purposes and shields them when guests are injured by the landowner’s “ordinary negligence.”

Ordinary negligence is defined as failure to act as a reasonable person would have acted in the same or similar circumstances, said Fambrough. As a general rule, landowners avoid ordinary negligence by warning or making the premises safe from all dangerous conditions they are aware of or that a reasonable inspection would reveal.

For more on Texas landowner liability, see Fambrough’s article, “Welcome (But Watch Out)” in the July issue of Tierra Grande magazine published by the Center, the nation’s largest publicly funded real estate research entity.