Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Most liability events that occur on a farm or ranch are judged under a standard of negligence. However, some are deemed to be so dangerous that a showing of negligence is not required to obtain a recovery. Under a strict liability approach, the defendant is liable for injuries caused by the defendant's actions, even if the defendant was not negligent in any way or did not intend to injure the plaintiff. In general, those situations reserved for resolution under a strict liability approach involve those activities that are highly dangerous. When these activities are engaged in, the defendant must be prepared to pay for all resulting consequences, regardless of the legal fault.
What are those situations that are common to the operation of a farm or ranch, or simply being a rural landowner that can lead to the application of the strict liability rule? That’s the focus of today’s post.
Application of a Strict Liability Rule
Wild animals. In general, landowners are not strictly liable for the acts of wild animals on their property. But, some courts have held that a landowner could be found negligent with regard to the indigenous wild animals that are found on the landowner’s property if the landowner knows or has reason to know of the unreasonable risk of harm posed by the animals. See, e.g., Vendrella v. Astriab Family Limited Partnership, 87 A.3d 546, 311 Conn. 301 (2014).
If an individual keeps wild animals on his or her premises, the individual will be strictly liable for any damages that the animals cause to other persons or their property. In many jurisdictions, the owner or possessor of hard-hoofed animals, such as cattle, horses and donkeys, may also be strictly liable for injuries caused by those animals, at least if known to have a vicious propensity.
Dogs and other domestic animals. Injuries or other damages caused by dogs are handled differently. The owner or possessor of a dog is normally not liable unless the owner knows the animal to be dangerous. Historically, a dog was entitled to its first bite. The dog's owner would not be liable for injuries from the dog's bite until the dog had already bitten someone. Until the dog has bitten someone, it is not known to be dangerous. In recent years, many states have passed statutes changing the common law rule and holding a dog owner (or a person who “harbors” a dog) responsible for the injuries caused by the dog. But see, Augsburger v. Homestead Mutual Insurance Company, et al., 856 N.W.2d 874, 359 Wis. 2d 385 (2014). An exception is usually made, however, for personal injuries caused by a dog if the defendant was trespassing or was committing an unlawful act at the time of the injury. Some state statutes also make a distinction on the basis of whether the dog would attack or injure someone without provocation. Also, under Restatement (Second) of Torts § 518, the owner of a domestic animal who does not know or have reason to know that the animal is more dangerous than others of its class may still be liable for negligently failing to prevent the animal from inflicting an injury. Approximately 20 states follow the Restatement approach.
Of importance to agriculture is that some state “dog-bite” statutes contain a “working dog exception.” The exception contained in the Colorado statute, for example, applies if the bite occurs while the dog is on its owner’s property or while the dog was working under the control of its owner. See, e.g., Legro v. Robinson, 369 P.3d 785, (Colo. Ct. App. 2015).
Maintaining dangerous conditions on property. Strict liability is imposed on persons responsible for activities or conditions on their property that are unreasonably dangerous and cause injury or damage to other persons or their property. For example, if a farmer or rancher decides to create a drainage ditch with explosives, and the resulting rock debris causes damages to a neighbor, the farmer will be strictly liable.
Unnatural land uses. The strict liability approach also includes most activities that are extremely dangerous. Perhaps the most frequent application of the doctrine to agriculture is in situations involving the aerial application of pesticides and other chemicals to crops. See, e.g., Pride of San Juan, Inc. v. Pratt, 548 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 20 (2009); Yancey v. Watkins, 708 S.E.2d 539, 308 Ga. App. 695 (2011). Most states utilize a strict liability rule if damage occurs. A few states purport to require a showing of negligence, but, in reality, even in these jurisdictions it may be difficult for a farmer to escape liability if damage occurs. For example, in Arkansas, violation of aerial crop spraying regulations constitutes evidence of negligence and the negligence of crop sprayers can be imputed to landowners because aerial crop spraying is viewed as an inherently dangerous activity. McCorkle Farms, Inc. v. Thompson, 84 S.W.3d 884 (Ark. Ct. App. 2003). However, the rule remains in Arkansas that the aerial application of chemicals commonly used in farming communities that are available for sale to the general public is not an ultrahazardous activity triggering application of strict liability. See, e.g., Mangrum v. Pique, et al., 359 Ark. 373, 198 S.W.3d 496 (2006).
Also, what is abnormally dangerous can depend on the circumstances and characteristics surrounding the complained-of activity. For example, in Crosstex North Texas Pipeline, L.P. v. Gardiner, 505 S.W.3d 580 (Tex. Sup. Ct. 2016), the Texas Supreme Court held that the operation of an oil and gas pipeline does not constitute an abnormally dangerous activity that would trigger the application of strict liability.
Arguably, if a farmer plants a genetically modified (GM) crop with knowledge that the crop is likely to cross-pollinate conventional crops in adjacent fields, the farmer could be held strictly liable for any resulting damages. The situation could be viewed as similar to the problem of pesticide drift. The damages in a cross-pollination case could include, among other things, loss of organic certification, costs associated with breaches of identity preserved crop contracts, and litigation costs of neighboring farmers who are sued by seed companies for “theft” of genetic intellectual property that was actually present in their fields due to wind and cross-pollination. See, e.g., Schmeiser v. Monsanto Canada, Inc.,  S.C.C. 34; Monsanto v. Trantham, 156 F.Supp. 2d 855 (W.D. Tenn. 2001); Monsanto v. McFarling, 302 F.3d 1291 (Fed. Cir. 2002); cert. den., 545 U.S. 1139 (2005). But, if the GM crop at issue had already received appropriate regulatory approval, the plaintiff could be required to prove that the GM crop was unnatural or abnormally dangerous.
While most liability events that occur on a farm ranch are judged based on a negligence standard, strict liability can apply in certain situations. In addition to those events mentioned above, certain environmental violations carry a strict liability standard of liability also. It’s helpful to know the applicable legal standard.