The Ferae Naturae doctrine prevents a landowner from being liable for injuries to guests from wildlife.Posted: June 15, 2020
In Texas, the landowner was not liable for the damages caused by a bite from a Brown Recluse Spider when it bit a tenant on the property.
State: Texas, Supreme Court of Texas
Plaintiff: Henry McCall
Defendant: Homer Hillis
Plaintiff Claims: premises liability
Defendant Defenses: ferae naturae
Holding: for the Defendant
Ferae Naturae means naturally wild. Since the guest knew Brown Recluse Spiders were around and had seen them, he could not hold the landowner liable for the damages suffered when he was bitten by one. The Texas Supreme Court held that since the plaintiff knew spiders were around, and they were wild animals; the landowner/defendant was not liable.
Homer Hillis owns a bed and breakfast (the B&B) and a neighboring cabin in Fredericksburg, Texas. He used the B&B as a second home until 2012, when he began renting it out, mainly on weekends. Hillis hired a housekeeper to prepare and clean the B&B before guests arrived. That process included utilizing “bug bombs” in the event the housekeeper noticed any pest problems. Thus, as Hillis described it, pest control at the B&B was conducted on an “[a]s needed” basis.
In early 2014, Hillis leased the neighboring cabin on the property to Henry McCall. The cabin had no washer or dryer and had only a small refrigerator, so Hillis permitted McCall to use the laundry facilities and larger refrigerator in the B&B. McCall also offered to “open up” the B&B for guests and others needing access, such as electricians and other maintenance workers. According to McCall, Hillis typically called him several days before guests arrived and asked him to perform various tasks.
On December 12, 2014, McCall accessed the B&B at Hillis’s request to check the dishwasher and investigate whether the sink was leaking. While checking under the sink for a leak, McCall was bitten by a brown recluse spider, which is a venomous spider found in several states, including Texas.
Before he was bitten, McCall had observed spiders in both the cabin and the B&B on several occasions and had notified Hillis about the general presence of spiders in the B&B. According to Hillis, when McCall reported issues with insects or spiders, Hillis would pass along the information to the housekeeper who prepared the B&B for guests. Hillis also averred that customer reviews of the B&B had never complained of insects. Neither Hillis nor McCall had any personal knowledge about the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property specifically or in the surrounding area. However, Hillis explained that he had read reports on the internet that brown recluse spiders “are habitats [sic] of Texas for a long time, and I assumed they were around my property.” Hillis had heard of people being bitten by brown recluses “elsewhere,” but not on his property.
McCall sued Hillis for negligence under a premises-liability theory, alleging that the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition, that Hillis knew or should have known of the condition, that Hillis owed McCall a duty to adequately warn him of the condition or make the property safe, that Hillis breached that duty, and that McCall suffered damages as a result. Hillis filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that, under the longstanding doctrine of ferae naturae, he owed no duty to McCall with respect to indigenous wild animals that Hillis had neither introduced to nor harbored on the property. The trial court granted the motion, and McCall appealed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
Premise’s liability is based on the theory that a landowner owes a duty to someone coming upon their land. The duty owed is dependent on the status of the person coming on the land. That status is usually based on the relationship between the landowner and the guest.
A landowner owes the most duty to an invitee.
When the injured person qualifies as an invitee, as McCall did, then as a general rule the landowner owes a “duty to make safe or warn against any concealed, unreasonably dangerous conditions of which the landowner is, or reasonably should be, aware but the invitee is not.”[A] (landowner’s duty to an invitee is to “use ordinary care to reduce or eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition which the owner . . . knows about or in the exercise of ordinary care should know about” (citation omitted)). In line with that rule, the duty does not extend to warning the invitee of hazards that are open and obvious.
There are exceptions to this rule. One is the open and obvious rule. A landowner does not owe the invitee a duty to warn or protect an invitee from an open and obvious danger on the land. If the risk is concealed, then the landowner must warn the invitee or protect the invitee from the risk.
The doctrine of ferae naturae is another duty that the landowner need not warn about. The doctrine of ferae naturae applies to wild animals and in a broader definition in some states to wind or water.
The reasoning underlying the doctrine is that wild animals “exist throughout nature” and are “generally not predictable or controllable.” In turn, the mere fact that an indigenous wild animal has crossed a landowner’s property line does not make the landowner better able to protect an invitee than the invitee is to protect himself. (“Under ordinary circumstances, Texas landowners do not have a duty to warn their guests about the presence and behavior patterns of every species of indigenous wild animals and plants which pose a potential threat to a person’s safety . . . .”).
There is an exception to the ferae naturae rule, if the wild animals are found in artificial structures or places where they are not normally found, then the landowner does have a duty to warn. The ferae naturae does not apply to zoos or to a keeper of wild animals.
Thus, when a wild animal enters such a structure, and the owner knows or has reason to know about the animal’s presence and the unreasonable risk of harm presented thereby but the invitee does not, it is reasonable to expect the owner to take steps to alleviate the danger or at least warn the invitee of it. (holding that a grocery store owner was not liable to a patron who was bitten by a rattlesnake inside the store where nothing in the record suggested that the owner “knew, or had reason to know from past experience, that there was a likelihood that snakes presented a danger to patrons”).
Because the landowner did not know the Brown Recluse Spiders were inside the building, he did not owe a duty to the plaintiff to warn him of the spiders. Further because the plaintiff did have actual knowledge that spiders were on the property he knew of the possible risks. The court stated there was no duty to warn a guest about something they already know.
The court held the landowner was not liable for the acts of the wild animal.
So Now What?
Since in most states, wild animals are owned by the state and since no one, contrary to whatever you see on TV or believed from Disney in the past, can control a wild animal, landowners are not liable for their actions. Consequently, holding a landowner liable for something he or she does not own and cannot control is difficult and does not create a legal duty.
The facts in this case are convoluted, but what allowed the landowner to succeed was the fact the plaintiff, who was living on the property for free, knew that dangerous spiders were around on the property. Since the landowner did not know there were Brown Recluse Spiders on the property the landowner could not be liable.
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