Farmer Beware: Agriculture Enters Age Of Civil Suits

When physical injury occurs in agriculture, the loss often leads directly to a courtroom.
( Photo: Chris Bennett )

Welcome to farming’s litigious age. When physical injury occurs in agriculture, the loss often leads directly to a courtroom. While producer eyes are quick to focus on the fine print and penalties of OSHA regulations, sledgehammer civil suits approach from the blind side, capable of swallowing an operation whole.

Mirroring the U.S. mainstream, agriculture has entered an era of litigation and legal wrangling. Lawsuits against farmers once were a rarity. Yet, today’s producer is often popularly perceived as a wealthy, land-rich businessman with substantial assets. As civil cases stack up in farm country, the plain truth is difficult to ignore: The factors surrounding liability can preserve a given operation or shred a legacy to the deepest roots.

Losing the farm

Bill Field is on the witness stand again. He’s testified in 120 agriculture-related cases involving disputes and tragedies of all stripes. Field, a professor of agricultural health and safety at Purdue University, has repeatedly seen the bitter fruit of civil suits: decimated farms and destroyed lives. “Farmers often don’t recognize that society has changed rapidly. Some of these settlements climb into the millions. When somebody gets hurt on a farm, they don’t fight, but they sue and the lawyer involved is coming for every penny possible,” says Field, who also serves as director of AgrAbility.

“Producers are typically worried about $10,000 OSHA fines, but I just worked with a farmer who paid his maximum umbrella policy on a death case of $1 million. Immediately after the settlement, his insurance company dropped him,” Field adds.

Field details a staggering number of legal cases involving unprepared producers. He has testified in six hayride suits where producers assumed insurance coverage. (After mounting losses, most insurance companies don’t offer coverage for hayrides.)

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Sledgehammer civil suits are capable of swallowing an operation whole.

© Chris Benentt

Passing on leftover chemicals, ATV wrecks, hunting accidents, livestock-related injuries and so much more, the areas of farm operation exposure seem endless. Field recalls an incident involving a farmer who allowed a neighbor to ride a snowmobile across his land. The neighbor drove directly into a white gas storage tank. Argument: Due to snowy conditions, the farmer should have recognized the low-visibility of the tank and marked it. “Insurance handled the case, but in time, they’ll get their money back from the farmer,” Field says.

Even non-agriculture activities relate directly to farm assets, a sobering reality that played out in another of Field’s cases. On a picturesque row crop and livestock operation, a farmer-and-wife team started a day care in a fenced-off addition of their house. A seven-year-old child wandered away and was killed after getting caught in a belt-pulley system. The child’s family sued and the farm was entirely lost: buildings, cattle, equipment and land.

“No one should think they can’t lose their farm,” Field says. “Some farmers have chemicals that aren’t even legal sitting in the shop. But even when legal chemicals are shared by a certified pesticide applicator, the transfer can cost a whole farm if something goes wrong. A quart out the backdoor to a friend can trigger a chain of disasters.”

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Sitting target: Today’s producer is often popularly perceived as a wealthy, land-rich businessman with substantial assets.

© Chris Benentt

Injuries and mishaps are only statistics until they strike a given farming operation. Field advises growers to consider the debilitating costs of injury and make certain of proper insurance coverage: “A $250,000 umbrella policy isn’t going to save your farm when something goes wrong. Civil cases aren’t just about physical injury. I know of a dairy farmer who allowed his lagoon to overflow and now everyone is coming after him for violations of state and federal rules. He’s also facing civil liability for contamination of water.”

Who steps on the farm?

Steven Simmons, Nationwide associate vice president of agribusiness risk management, is a 31-year insurance veteran and has seen gradual change in the liability arena: “Thirty years ago, the general belief was hometown people don’t sue hometown people. That went out the door 20 years ago. If the event is catastrophic there are specialized attorneys searching for these types of losses or accidents.”

Simmons says producers must precisely examine who walks onto their operations—employees or guests—and factor in liability. “Call your agent and go eye to eye. We recommend you talk to your agent at least once a year. Operations are constantly changing and those changes may create areas or situations without coverage or a need to increase coverage. So many things on a farm require specific coverage that may not be covered by general liability,” he notes.

“Make sure your agent understands your operation and ask if you’ve got enough coverage. The purpose of general liability and umbrellas is to protect your assets. If you are liable for a loss of $1 million and your policy has a $300,000 limit of insurance, you may be responsible for the difference,” Simmons adds.

Ross Pifer, director of The Center for Agricultural and Shale Law at Penn State University, says the extent of grower obligations depends on who is at the farm: “Trespasser, guest, salesman, worker or customer, the level of obligation increases as someone is more connected to the farm business.”

“Obligations with something like OHSA regulations are easier to understand, but there is a lot of gray in civil liability assessment and that clouds how farmers view the necessity of protection,” Pifer says.

Negligence and 911

Field recently testified in a case where a farmer hired a young neighbor to help work on an old silo motor. At the farmer’s request, the teenager pushed on the motor while it was running, and a slip resulted in a major leg injury. “The farmer paid the maximum under his policy and it was a huge amount of money,” Field explains. “Your operation can’t afford an injury unless you are protected.”

He urges producers to invite insurance carriers to the farm to break down risk factors: “Show them what you do and then have a sit-down to go over all the details of your coverage and what else is needed.”

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Chemicals, ATV wrecks, hunting accidents, livestock-related injuries and so much more, the areas of farm operation exposure seem endless.

© Chris Benentt

Field also stresses the importance of a safety and emergency action plan. When the unlikely happens and something goes wrong, he says everyone on an operation should know where to meet and what general steps to take.

On several occasions, Field has witnessed the cost of delays. He recalls a case where a 911 contact was delayed for several hours. Field was seated at his work desk when the phone rang with a call from a former student. “A guy was trapped in a grain bin and nobody called 911. Why? The boss was afraid of OSHA and was going to hide it. They wanted me to walk them through what to do. I said, ‘Call 911 now.’”

“It’s a basic fundamental: Call 911 or you’ll be in worse shape and that should be stated right up front in any emergency action plan. Anything else is called negligence.”

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