Welcome mat can bring liability
A farmer sent us this question: “Several people have asked for permission to hunt for mushrooms and wildlife on my property. I told them they could, but now I’m worried. What happens if one of them gets hurt? Also, what happens if other people come onto my property without my permission? Am I responsible if those people get hurt?”
Our answer is, in general, if you allow others to use your property for recreational purposes, you are not liable for the person’s injuries. Several states have laws (typically called recreational use statutes), which provide that a property owner owes no duty to keep the premises safe for others to use the property for recreational purposes. In other words, if you allow people to come onto your property with or without your permission, you aren’t making any assurances that the property is safe for them or that you are assuming any liability for any injuries to the people or their property while they are on your land.
• Farming operations face many situations that can give rise to liability claims.
• Premises liability in Iowa was recently revised to require “reasonable care.”
• The Iowa Court of Appeals changes the interpretation of the law.
The purpose of these statutes is to encourage property owners to allow people to use the land for recreational uses. Recreational uses include activities such as hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, nature study, water skiing, water sports and viewing historical, archeological, scenic or scientific sites. The protection generally includes use of any roads, waters, water courses, private ways and buildings, structures, and machinery or equipment on the land.
The protection is not unlimited, however. You aren’t protected from liability for injuries if you act “willfully and maliciously” toward visitors. For instance, you cannot purposively hide dangers on the land or set traps that will likely injure others.
Also, if you charge a fee, seek donations or request a portion of the hunter’s bounty from user, then there is no liability protection under the laws. If charging, you should work with your attorney to draft a specific release of liability form for visitors to sign.
A change in interpretation
If you are an Iowa landowner who invites groups to your farm, you may have heard about a recent Iowa Court of Appeals decision that creates an additional exception to the recreational use statute protections. In Sallee v. Stewart, No. 1-967/11-0892 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 29, 2012), a dairy farmer invited a kindergarten class and chaperones to his farm.During this visit, the group was guided by the farmer to different activities, such as horseback riding, calf feeding, tractor viewing and playing in the hayloft. One of the chaperones was in the hayloft with the children when a hay bale on which she was standing gave way, and she fell down a chute to the floor 6 feet below. As a result, she broke her wrist and ankle.
The farmer relied on the recreational use statute to protect him from liability for the chaperone’s injuries, but the court decided that because the farmer had acted as a “tour guide” and accompanied the class to the recreational activities he planned, he could be held liable to keep the premises safe and the statute did not apply to his circumstances.
You should be aware of potential liability that may occur if you guide, accompany or plan recreational activities for people on your land. This means releases may be needed. Iowa courts, however, have decided that parents cannot release liability claims for their children. This means there may be no way to protect yourself against liability for injuries to children.
This case has been appealed, so it is not certain whether the interpretation will stand, but for now, you should keep this in mind when opening your land to others in similar situations.
Eckley is with the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at ISU. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-294-6365. The website is www.calt.iastate.edu.
This article published in the May, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.