How Farmers Can Avoid Frivolous Liability ClaimsAugust 22, 2019
Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly litigious society. Among farmers themselves, and within the rather insulated community of agriculture and animal husbandry, frivolous lawsuits aren’t all that common. However, there is an increased risk of them with the rise of agritainment operations. Knowing how farmers can avoid frivolous liability claims can help them better protect their operations.
With many farmers taking their products direct-to-market and others opening farm premises to agritainment ventures, increased contact with the general public exposes family and commercial farming enterprises to new and heightened risks of both legitimate and nuisance lawsuits.
While the best and most advisable way to educate oneself about avoiding liability claims and legal issues is by consulting a licensed attorney in their state of operations, farmers can take some common-sense measures in order to help curtail some of these problems, before they arise. Here are a few tips for how farmers can avoid frivolous liability claims:
1. Post Visible Signage
Farmers should consider posting visible signage on their property to inform visitors, both invited and uninvited, who enter their property. This is one of the biggest tips for how farmers can avoid frivolous liability claims and there are several ways to implement it.
Identify Restricted Areas
Farms with bio-hazard areas should have these parts of the farm restricted or at the very least well-posted so that people know the area is off-limits to unauthorized personnel. In many instances, this also protects the farm from external diseases contaminating sensitive areas.
Restricting access to areas on the farm by posting signs may help a farmer maintain some grounds with which to defend themselves should a visitor or trespasser become injured on the farm.
However, farmers should avoid posting signs around specific hazards that are subsequently left unrepaired or unobstructed. Doing so could establish negligence on the farmer’s part since they let the peril exist without taking proper and responsible steps to remedy the hazard.
Posted Rules for Agritainment Operations
If farmers invite the public onto the premises for things like agritainment attractions, cut-your-own Christmas tree farms, or pick-your-own produce operations, they have assumed a higher responsibility to their guests. As such, they have many increased liability exposures. In these instances, signage is an even more necessary facet of the farm and business.
Farmers may consider providing each guest with a printout of rules and liability disclaimers along with posting rules clearly and visibly in multiple places around the farm. If farmers are offering hayrides, specific rules for this activity should be posted on the wagon itself.
Meet Signage Requirements for Your State
Many states have adopted Equine Liability Acts, which have specific signage posting requirements in order to be able to receive their legal protections. And, some states have adopted similar laws that offer protection for agritainment operations. Be sure to comply with the posting requirements of these statutes as they apply in your state.
Disclaimers and rules postings do not, in and of themselves, automatically exempt farmers from litigation, either frivolous or otherwise. However, they are a good first step toward both the prevention of injury as well as educating the visiting public about certain inherent risks that are present on these farm properties.
2. Keep Premises Free of Hazards
Well-Kept Farms Lessen Liability Exposures
In as much that it is possible, farmers should try to keep their farm premises tidy. First, insurance companies like to see what they term as “good-housekeeping”. A farm that is neatly-kept will open up additional insurer options and crediting structures, which can directly lead to premium savings.
Second, having a farm that is free of debris and hazards will lessen the liability exposures present on the farm premises. After all, this is precisely why insurance companies reward farms that are well-kept with better pricing!
Secure Non-Public Equipment in an Off-Limits Area
The task of keeping a neat and tidy farm is especially important for farmers who have the general public on their premises. Discarded building materials, debris, equipment, seasonal decorations and other items that are relevant to the farming or agritainment operation should be stored in secure places that are off-limits to farm visitors. Farmers shouldn’t make the assumption that the public has the same experience, or what they may deem as common-farm-sense, that they have developed over the years of operating a working farm.
Maintain the Premises for Improved Safety
In addition to keeping the farm free of obstacles, farmers and pick-your-own or agritainment operators should be certain to keep the areas of the farm accessible to the public free from potholes or excessively uneven ground that can all too often lead to falls or ankle sprains.
In the case of pick-your-own orchards, it is much more prudent to provide the public with “picker poles” to reach fruit on higher branches than to allow anyone to leave the level ground by climbing a ladder. You can’t eliminate every hazard, but due diligence should be taken to make the premises as friendly and safe as possible for people who may not be accustomed to spending time on an operating farm property.
3. Include Pollution Liability Coverage on Your Policy
Every Farm Should Have it, Regardless of Size
Pollution Liability Coverage should be on each farm policy. Even gentlemen farms can benefit from this type of coverage, so farmers shouldn’t assume that their operation isn’t of the size or scale that needs to consider this important endorsement to a Farmowners Insurance Policy. Production agriculture farms are especially in need of Pollution Liability coverage since an important facet of the farm operation is spreading animal waste onto cropland.
Protection in Case of Residential Overlap
With the increasing urbanization of much of the nation’s ag lands, farmers are often finding themselves growing crops against the backyards of sprawling residential developments. Should a homeowner’s well become contaminated with high nitrate counts and it is traced back to the application of fertilizer on the neighboring farm field, a farmer can quickly realize the benefits of having coverage for the pollution caused by their “negligence”. Likewise, a farmer who is spraying crops and accidentally sprays a portion of a residential or commercial lawn or shrubbery could also be looking at a pollution claim.
Important for Property Owners Renting Land
For a property owner who is renting a portion of their property for agricultural use, it is advisable to ask the farmer, who is working the land, to add them as an additional insured on their Farmowners policy. They should also make sure to require that the farmer carries pollution liability coverage on their policy.
There are many other hypothetical scenarios that make the benefits of carrying this type of coverage quite evident. In short, don’t cut corners when it comes to Pollution Liability Insurance Coverage.
4. Establish a Legal Fund Just in Case
Even though frivolous liability claims against farmers are not exceedingly common, especially in more rural areas of the country, farmers are well-served to establish a rainy-day legal fund to protect their family against unforeseen and unfortunate lawsuits.
Insurance Policies May Exclude Certain Types of Claims
One of the things people don’t know about farm insurance policies is that they are comprehensive in nature. But, even the most comprehensive insurance policies may exclude coverage for certain types of liability claims. For this reason, it is important for a farmer to have some monetary reserves to retain a lawyer.
Find a Local Attorney You Like and Trust
Along with that, farmers should make contact with a local attorney and establish a relationship so that they have someone to call in these types of legal circumstances. If a farmer receives a letter from a claimant’s attorney, having an attorney to call can aid in the quick resolution of the issue. Farmers who ignore legal notices or have to spend time to find an attorney to represent them in such disputes may lose valuable time and allow the matter to escalate.
5. Train Your Employees
Farm employees should be prepared and well-trained to deal with the initial circumstances that arise when bodily injury or property damage, or claims of such, occur as a result of the farming operations.
First Aid Training and Assistance Procedure
Agritainment and pick-your-own employees should be prepped with first aid training. They should be instructed to be vigilant in their observation of the activities of the general public on the farm.
If an incident occurs, employees should offer assistance and concern, but refrain from the natural desire to be overly apologetic. This can result in establishing fault or responsibility before the actual facts of the situation have the opportunity to bear themselves out.
Employees should be prepared to immediately document the specific details of the incident in writing, complete with dates, times and statements from the injured party and any witnesses to the incident.
Equipment Training and Operation
Farmers who have employees who will be operating equipment on the road need to make sure the employee is competent in the operation of said machinery before venturing on a public thoroughfare. Farmers and employees operating farm equipment on the road should also refrain from conducting any type of traffic direction.
Vehicles of husbandry have specific requirements in order to be driven on the road, but they do, indeed, have the right to be there. So, the best practice is to allow a motorist to make their own decisions about passing or maneuvering around agricultural equipment. If an accident occurs, it is usually the best practice to have a police officer come out to the scene to create an official incident report.
While many of these tips for how farmers can avoid frivolous liability claims could be categorized as common sense, many farmers neglect to take many of these simple steps, which have the ability to make their farms safer places to visit and work. Many of these tips also overlap with things farmers & property owners can do to manage liability risks during hunting season.
These steps can help to both curtail the occurrence of many incidences and lessen their financial impacts if they do occur. Making sure your farm is as safe as is reasonably possible will help to ensure the perpetuation of your agricultural operations for years to come.
If you would like to discuss ways to keep your farm safe, and, hopefully, free from lawsuits of all kinds, contact one of our experienced agricultural insurance agents today at 1-800-537-6880 or 717-665-2283, or fill out the consultation request form on our website.
Disclaimer: The preceding is for discussion purposes only and should not be construed as any type of legally binding or situation-specific legal advice. A licensed attorney, possessing the most recent and reliable sources of law, should always be consulted in order to instruct individuals in regard to any and all legal matters.
Disclaimer: Information and claims presented in this content are meant for informative, illustrative purposes and should not be considered legally binding.