DALLAS (KTVT) — As the population of North Texas has grown, so has the number of car collisions involving stray livestock.
These accidents often cause thousands of dollars in damage and in some cases can be fatal.
But determining liability is often difficult and frustrating, especially for those like Kathy Johnston.
Last November, when Johnston heard a knock at her door in the early morning hours, she knew right away what it was about.
Her husband had not come home the night before. No phone calls. No text messages.
“I knew. I just knew,” she said.
Investigators said her husband, Wershiell Johnston, was the passenger in a car traveling on FM 917 in Johnson County when around a corner the driver spotted a horse in middle of the road.
The driver swerved, lost control, the car flipped, and then stuck a cement truck.
In the matter of minutes, investigators said one stray horse caused five vehicles to crash – killing two people.
“He was a great guy,” Johnston said about her husband of 22 years. “He brought so many people together.”
A CBS 11 I-Team investigation found hundreds of crashes in North Texas in the past five years that, according to accident reports, were caused by livestock on the roadway.
The I-Team also found the laws in Texas that are supposed to protect ranchers and motorists are often antiquated and in some cases unknown to local law enforcement and even judges.
Texas, by default, is open range giving livestock the right of way to roam free. Texas lawmakers declared the state open range centuries ago to make it easier to transport cattle to market.
Since 1876 counties have been allowed to pass local fencing laws, better known as stock laws.
Some county stock laws require all livestock in the entire county to be fenced in. Others, however, cover just parts of a county or just certain species of livestock.
Adding to the confusion, many of the stock laws in North Texas were passed in the 19th-century and are hand-written using creeks, rivers and outdated precinct lines as boundaries.
“I get calls from (judges, attorneys, sheriffs) almost monthly wanting to know if I know the law in their county,” said Dallas attorney Alison Rowe.
Rowe, who specializes in equine law, spent months compiling a list of Texas county stock laws. She is the only known lawyer or organization who has compiled such a list.
“It is the hardest thing to find,” she said. “I’ve been a lawyer for over 15 years and it is literally the hardest law to find and determine a definitive answer on.”
Rowe said the reason the laws are difficult to find is because most are only located in the commissioner’s court minutes of each individual county.
In some North Texas counties when the I-Team asked the county clerk for a copy of the stock laws, no one at the county could find them.
Rowe said unclear stock laws make it difficult for law enforcement as well as difficult to determine liability in car accidents.
She said overturning Texas’ open range law is long overdue.
“We no longer need it, in my opinion, because now we have trucks and trains to get cattle to market,” she explained. “To me it seems like it can give rise to a lot of liability to innocent people.”
Scott Williamson, who is the director of law enforcement for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers, agrees that stock laws are often unclear.
However, Williamson said getting rid of the open range law would not necessarily cut down on cow-to-car collisions and it could be devastating for some Texas ranchers.
“Their operations proceeded these county roads, so they might not have water on one side or another,” he explained. “The sheer cost may put them out of business of putting a hundred mile of fence on both sides of a road through their ranch.”
Based on his experience, Williamson said even with proper fencing, livestock do on occasion escape to no fault of the owner.
He said, especially on more rural county roads, drivers need to be responsible for watching for stray livestock.
“I think the nature of our society is to look for someone to blame,” Williamson said. “But in many tragedies in the there is no one to blame.”
Johnston said there may have been a time when open range made sense but said not anymore.
“Really it doesn’t make any sense at all,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
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