$1.25M verdict too much in Texas cattle theft case

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Supreme Court on Friday struck down a $1.25 million jury award in a case involving a ranching feud, a drought and wandering cattle improperly sold for about $5,000.

The court said that even in a state that still looks "unkindly" on thievery in a $15 billion industry - and noting it used to be the kind of thing settled with a rope over a tree limb - such a large damages award was too much and should be recalculated to something more "modest."

But the court also couldn't refuse the chance to comment on modern-day cattle theft, noting that "Texans know better than to steal cattle."

According to court records, the case stems from a dispute between San Saba County ranchers Randy Reynolds and Thomas O. Bennett, Jr. in October 2000, when drought had parched a stretch of the Colorado River that ran next to their properties.

Reynolds noticed he was missing 23 head of cattle that had wandered down the dry riverbed onto Bennett's land. He was able to round up six and return them to his ranch.

Bennett then ordered two of his ranchers to round up 13 cattle to sell at auction and, even though the ranchers raised concerns that the cattle were not his, Bennett sold them for $5,327.

A year later, one of the ranchmen told Reynolds he thought Bennett had sold his cattle and that he had reported it to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

In 2002, Bennett was indicted on charges of cattle theft, but acquitted of the criminal charge.

Reynolds sued him and the corporate owner of his land, the James B. Bonham Corp. A jury ruled against Bennett, ordering him to pay $250,000 and the corporation to pay $1 million.

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that while Bennett's actions warrant exemplary damages, the penalty was too much and should be reduced.

Texas is the top cattle-raising state in the nation, with 13.8 million head of cattle, and very serious business.

The court opinion noted the particularly sensitive nature of Texans stealing each other's cattle, and said in the old days the quarrel might have been settled with frontier justice: a hanging.

"The Lone Star State thus looks unkindly on cattle theft, which unfortunately is not a colorful vestige of yesteryear," Justice Don Willett wrote for the court. "Texans know better than to steal cattle, an offense once redressed beneath a tree rather than inside a courtroom."

The opinion also drew from poet Robert Frost to remind the ranchers "Good fences make good neighbors," especially on the drought-prone Colorado River.

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