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Feeling Exposed: Farm Liability, Part One

Feeling Exposed: Farm Liability, Part One
Lack of public sympathy leaves farmers vulnerable to lawsuits after an accident

During wheat harvest, a combine catches fire; the flames drift and burn part of a nearby home. The farmer is sued, along with the combine manufacturer.

A well-meaning farmer hires a 14-year-old neighbor and puts him on an old tractor to mow ditch banks. The kid is injured. The farmer gets hit with a citation from the Wage and Hour Division, is fined by OSHA, and then sued by the child’s family for emotional suffering.

Here's a sobering reality: If you’re involved in an accident involving death or injury, you’ll likely be named in a lawsuit.

In many trials, "I see farmers losing," says Bill Field, Purdue Extension Safety Specialist.

“I’ve testified in over 100 trials, and in many, I see farmers losing,” says Bill Field, Purdue Extension safety specialist. “The farmer may have done everything he could to prevent the incident, but juries are coming down on the other side.”

Historically, farming was recognized as hazardous, and that danger was seen as part of the business. More often than not, that made the farmer a sympathetic figure with the general public. Now, not so much, says Field. The social contract farmers once had with the public is vanishing.

“Now you are a target,” he adds. “Farmers have been through boom times. You may own land that’s worth millions today, and attorneys know that. People see these $200,000 tractors taking up most of the road. Someone runs into him, and the farmer gets blamed in court — and pays.

“If you’re not careful, all those assets are vulnerable in a lawsuit,” Field says. “You make a decision that causes someone to die or be severely injured; they’re going after you, and I don’t think farmers have really caught up with this idea.”

Field lists some high-profile situations where farmers often underestimate the risks:

Establishing separate business entities. A major risk farmers have is operating semitrucks on the highway. Farmers forget to set up limited liability companies for separate businesses, like trucking for hire. Or worse, they begin to use their farm trucks for things other than their own business. This is an area where litigation is rising, says Field.

Employer training. If you fail to train or supervise workers and something happens to them, your chances of losing in a lawsuit or settlement increase dramatically, says Field.

Rule compliance. Failure to put proper containment structures around fuel tanks of a certain size, or hiring 11 or more employees. “When you reach 11 workers or more, you are open to a visit from OSHA,” says Field. “When they come, I recommend you bake cookies. Treat them well. And they will focus on big-ticket items such as things that may impact life or neighbors.”

Hiring underage youth. Many farmers are clueless about this, so they hire the 14-year-old kid to mow lawns and drive tractors, and that’s not legal unless the kids have had some training. “The largest case I’m familiar with was when a guy hired a lot of kids to work in a seed operation,” says Field. “He ended up paying a half-million-dollar fine. I don’t think most farmers today have those kinds of reserves to pay those fines.”

In part two of this blog, we'll offer tips to limit your exposure in case of an accident. Watch for it later this week.

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