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Iowa Supreme Court case has farmers shutting their doors

BY CASSIDY RILEY | APRIL 11, 2013 5:00 AM

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As spring approaches, farmers say they often encounter people wanting to visit their farms, but changes in liability laws may have some farmers closing their doors to the public this year.

For more than 40 years, Iowa farmers have been protected under the recreational use and immunity statute that states that farmers are immune from liability of injuries that occur on their property aside from a farmer willfully injuring an individual. 

The intent for the statute was to encourage farmers to open up their land for recreational purposes such as hunting and fishing because of a lack of public land in Iowa.

An Iowa Supreme Court decision in February changed this by stating that unless the injury occurred under specific circumstance, a farmer can be held liable.

“This is hugely detrimental for hunting in the state,” Tim Powers, director for Whitetails Unlimited, an animal conservation group, said. “I’ll tell you if they think they have a deer problem now, wait till this [takes effect.] If we don’t have hunters, we don’t have people to control the deer herds.”

This case began when a mother chaperoning her daughter’s kindergarten class’ visit to the defendant’s dairy farm broke her wrist and ankle from falling six feet through a chute when a bale of hay gave in under her.

After reviewing the case, the Supreme Court decided that the current language of the statute did not cover educational tours such as this one.

The court stated in order for immunity to apply, the injury would have to occur under five specific circumstances, including that it would have to be outside in land open to general public and the person injured was participating in an approved activity. The farmer could not have invited the person injured or acted as a tour guide.

Steve Swenka, a local farmer, said in the spring he gets a lot of grade-school classes interested in visiting his farm, and in the past, he always allowed them to visit. But now, he said, he will have to say no.

“We’re farmers, we’re not lawyers, so we can’t determine if every situation falls under those parameters,” he said. “So the best solution for me is to close the door and say sorry I can’t allow any more people on my farm. That way you know your bases are covered.”

One farmer from Franklin County said he will still invite people to his land because he said he has always thought that farmers are somewhat responsible for injuries on their land and that they just need to be careful.

“It’s one of my passions to show people who don’t know a lot abut a farm what a farm is,” Larry Sailer said. “We still have to be very careful in what we do when we bring in people who are not used to the farm.”

There is currently legislation in both the state Senate and House Judiciary Committees that would overturn the ruling in the Sallee v. Stewart case and broaden the terms under which farmers would be immune from liability.

Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said he is working on an amendment to the bill so that farmers would be immune from liability in most cases but not in cases that involve farmers touring children because they can’t always tell themselves when a situation could be dangerous.

“It’s appropriate to take measures to protect those children, and if they don’t, then maybe the farmer should be liable,” he said. 

Sen. Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington, said he is undecided about his support of this legislation because while he does think there could be situations in which farmers should be held liable, he thinks it is important to expose people who have grown up away from farms to how a farm works.

“I think it’s important they know where stuff comes from,” he said. “They need to know it comes from some place other than Hy-Vee.”


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