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Farm liability a growing concern

Farm liability issues: What rights and responsibilities do landowners have with respect to their land and protecting the farming operation?

This month, we have received several questions regarding liability issues affecting landowners. There have been many interesting cases out of the Iowa appellate courts that address these issues in recent months.

As a landowner, what are my rights if a hunter trespasses onto my property? Is there a penalty for interfering with hunting activities? In a recent case, an encounter between hunters and a landowner turned sour. Here, an 11-member hunting party had permission to hunt on the land adjacent to the plaintiff.

While the plaintiff, a farmer, was doing morning chores, he allegedly saw one of the hunters enter onto his property. (Some years before, the plaintiff had allegedly shot at the same group of hunters.)

The hunters heard gunshots and assumed the plaintiff was shooting at them. They called 911 and then followed the plaintiff into his driveway. One of the hunters, a sheriff’s deputy, approached the plaintiff telling him not to leave his property.

Later, the plaintiff sued the hunters, seeking damages for trespass, assault and false imprisonment. The plaintiff did not prevail at trial, so he appealed the case. The appellate court found that the plaintiff failed to prove assault by the hunters.

To prove assault in Iowa, he had to show that the hunters intended to put him “in fear of physical contact” and that they had the “apparent ability to execute the act.” The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s charge of false imprisonment.

The deputy did detain the landowner, but the question was whether merely detaining the plaintiff for a few minutes was within the realm of legality. The court found it was. The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s claims of trespass. To be found guilty of trespass in Iowa, one must intentionally and without consent enter the land in possession of another.

Thus, if a hunter trespasses onto your property without your consent, you must prove that the act was intentional. You must also respond in a reasonable manner — meaning that you can’t use deadly force or cause serious bodily injury if you are not threatened yourself in that manner.

Hunters in Iowa are protected by Iowa Code §481A.125, which imposes misdemeanor penalties on individuals who intentionally interfere with lawful hunting activities. Also, check with your insurance agent to see if your liability coverage matches your liabilities.

Liability for tenant’s dog?

Another question we received recently: I own an acreage in rural Iowa and regularly rent the home to tenants. For the most part, we have not had any problems. However, the new tenants own a pit bull. What is my potential liability as the landlord for injuries caused by a tenant’s dog?

In many states, courts have held landlords liable along with tenants for injuries caused by pit bulls and rottweilers, on a strict liability theory (court imposes liability regardless of fault).

However, the Iowa courts recently held that, as a general rule, a landlord who leases property without an agreement to repair the premises is not liable for personal injuries sustained because of an unsafe condition (in this case a pit bull named “Chopper”) arising on the premises after the tenant takes possession.

Who’s liable for stray voltage?

As the owner of a dairy operation, I have dealt with the effects of stray voltage. I have sustained damages to my herd, such as low milk production and a high death rate. What is my legal recourse?

In one situation, a farmer sued an electric utility for nuisance arising out of health problems in his dairy herd, alleging that stray voltage from the utility’s installations was a nuisance and led to the farm’s eventual bankruptcy.

Before trial, the electric utility asked the Iowa Supreme Court whether Iowa’s comparative fault statute was a potential defense in this type of nuisance action. The court concluded that the Iowa Legislature intended to allow an electric utility to assert the defense of comparative fault if the utility demonstrated that it provided electricity in a way that complied with certain engineering and safety standards.

Fault could be assessed to the farmer for the problems with the herd, but if a nuisance is proven, then the farmer’s fault can’t be used to diminish an award for damages for diminishment of the property caused by the nuisance — that would be an unconstitutional taking of farm property.

As always, if you have farm-related legal questions, direct them to me at CALT at ISU. E-mail is eherbold@iastate.edu, or phone 515-294-6365.

Herbold is staff attorney for the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at ISU.

Estate tax redo

Legislation enacted in late 2010 significantly changes the tax rules impacting estate plans. While the changes are major, they are only temporary for 2011 and 2012. For an update and explanation, read the article “Estate Planning, Temporary Certainty” in the February CALT newsletter at www.calt.iastate.edu.


This article published in the March, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.