Monday, January 28, 2019

Selected Recent Cases Involving Agricultural Law


Last fall, I wrote a blog post where I took a look at a handful of recent court developments involving agricultural law.  Since then I have received numerous requests to do another post surveying more court developments involving legal issues that farmers, ranchers, rural landowners and agribusinesses face. 

Recent court opinions involving ag law issues – that’s the topic of today’s post. 

Adverse Possession

Each state, even though differences exist in state law, recognize that if an individual possesses someone else's land in an open and notorious fashion with an intent to take it away from them, such person (known as an adverse possessor) becomes the true property owner after the statutory time-period (anywhere from 10 to 21 years) has expired.  If use is by permission, the adverse possession statute is never tolled.  See, e.g., Engel v. Carlson, No. A-07-016, 2008 Neb. App. LEXIS 94 (Neb. Ct. App. May 13, 2008).

The requirements that the use of the land must be “adverse” and under a “claim of right” are sometimes combined under the requirement that the use of the land be “hostile” to the true owner’s use.  For example, in Cannon v. Day, 165 N.C. App. 302, 598 S.E.2d 207 (2004), rev. den., 604 S.E.2d 309 (N.C. 2004), the original owners never granted permission to use a lane, and the neighbor had used the lane for more than 20 years adverse to the true owners. The court determined that the neighbor had adversely possessed the lane and the ownership of it passed to the neighbor’s successors in interest. 

The hostility requirement is designed to put the true owner on notice that another party is using the land adversely to the true owner.  See, e.g., Groves v. Applen, No. 31241-7-II, 2005 Wash. App. LEXIS 1460 (Wash. Ct. App. Jun. 14, 2005). However, in Kansas, the adverse possession statute does not contain a “hostility” requirement, and the doctrine can be asserted against an undisclosed co-tenant.  Buchanan v. Rediger, 26 Kan. App.2d 59, 975 P.2d 1235 (1999)

Recent case.  In Collier v. Gilmore, 2018 Ark. App. 549 (Ark. Ct. App. 2018), the Arkansas Court of Appeals held that farming to a cultivation line constituted adverse possession.  The parties each gained title to their respective tracts from the same predecessor. In 1972, the plaintiff purchased his tract and believed that he purchased up to the fence where his predecessor had farmed. However, the deed did not include a strip of land up to the fence. Since the 1980’s, the plaintiff farmed up to where the fence was in 1972 believing that to be the property line. Sometime during the 1980’s the defendant received title to the other portion of the predecessor’s original property. The plaintiff sued claiming adverse possession of the strip of land not in the 1972 deed. The trial court agreed.

On appeal, the appellate court affirmed. The appellate court held that the plaintiff’s farming of the disputed strip for several decades was sufficient to establish an intent to hold against the true owner’s rights. The appellate court also determined that the plaintiff’s possession was also hostile because it was greater than the deed anticipated and was without permission of the true owner. While the strip had never been enclosed by a fence or other enclosure, the property line was the cultivation line which had been clearly identified for decades via the plaintiff’s conduct. 

Vicarious Liability

In certain situations, one person may be held liable for the tortious acts of another person based on a special relationship between the two.  Such liability (called vicarious liability) exists even though the person held liable not have personally committed the act.  Often this issue arises in employment situations.  An employer may be held vicariously liable for the tortious acts (usually negligent ones) committed by an employee.  Thus, if an employee commits a tort during the “scope of employment”, the employer will (jointly with the employee) be liable. 

This rule is often described as the doctrine of “respondeat superior”, which means “let the person higher up answer.”  Vicarious liability applies to torts committed by employees and generally not to those committed by independent contractors.  Therefore, it is critical to determine whether a particular individual was an employee or an independent contractor.  While no single factor is dispositive in all cases, an employee is generally one who works subject to the control of the employer concerning the manner and means of performance. 

Recent case.  In Moreno v. Visser Ranch, Inc., No. F075822, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 1194 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 20, 2018), at issue was a dairy farm’s liability for a worker involving in an accident.  The dairy employed a worker to be on call around the clock to repair equipment at the dairy.  The worker was involved in his work vehicle when he was involved in a single vehicle accident. The plaintiff was riding with the worker at the time of the accident. The plaintiff was employed by a third party to perform various services at the dairy and other local farms. On the night of the accident, the worker and plaintiff attended a family function (they were related) not located on the dairy’s property. On the way home after the function, the vehicle they were in left the road and rolled over. The plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt and was seriously injured. The plaintiff sued the driver, dairy farm and the auto manufacturer for negligence. The plaintiff also sued the State and the County based on the dangerous condition of the road where the accident occurred (the road was under construction). The dairy moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s respondeat superior claim on the basis that the driver was not acting within the scope of employment when the accident occurred. The trial court granted the motion. The trial court also granted summary judgment for the diary on the issue of liability arising from ownership of the vehicle. The plaintiff was, however, able to recover statutory damages from the driver.

On appeal, the appellate court determined that fact issues remained on the respondeat superior claim. Though the worker and the plaintiff were returning from a family function, the driver was on call 24/7 to respond to issues at the dairy farm. In addition, the appellate court determined that a fact issue remained as to whether the worker was acting within the scope of his employment and benefiting the dairy farm at the time of the accident. The appellate court remanded the case. 

Inherently Dangerous Activities

Another aspect of respondeat superior involves activities that the law deems to be inherently dangerous. In this instance, the person making the hire can be held vicariously liable even if the person hired is an independent contractor.  For example, in some states, aerial crop spraying is considered evidence of negligence.  In these situations, a plaintiff only needs to establish that aerial spraying occurred and damage resulted.  A showing of negligence on the part of the individual spraying the crops is not necessary.  However, the majority of states still require a showing of negligence before damages can be recovered.  In the states not requiring a showing of negligence, the practical effect is to apply a strict liability rule.  In these jurisdictions, delegation of the spraying task to an independent contractor does not eliminate a farmer's liability.  This problem is so severe that most farm liability policies do not cover the aerial spraying or dusting of crops.  The damage award in a crop dusting case is calculated on the basis of the difference between the crop yield that would have normally resulted and the yield actually obtained after the damage, adjusted for any reduction in costs, such as drying or hauling costs.  Yield is based on the best evidence available.

Recent case.  In Keller Farms, Inc. v. Stewart, No. 1:16 CV 265 ACL, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 210209 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 13, 2018), the court held that the aerial application of ag chemicals is not an inherently dangerous activity.  The case involved a dispute involving damage to the plaintiffs’ trees caused by chemicals that allegedly drifted during aerial application. The plaintiffs attempted to hold both the aerial applicator and the landowner that hired the applicator. The plaintiffs claimed the landowner was vicariously liable for the applicator’s actions because aerial spraying of burndown chemicals is an "inherently dangerous activity."

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law on the plaintiff's trespass claim, but the remaining issues were left for the jury to resolve.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants on the negligence and negligence per se claims. The plaintiffs filed a motion for a new trial, arguing the verdict was against the weight of the evidence; that the trial court erred in excluding evidence; and that the trial court erred in granting the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law. The trial court, however, denied the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial.

On appeal, the appellate court affirmed. The appellate court determined that the jury’s verdict was not against the weight of the evidence, and that the aerial application of herbicides was commonplace and not inherently dangerous. In addition, the appellate court noted that the defendants’ evidence was that the herbicides did not actually drift onto the plaintiff’s property and that the applicator complied with all label requirements and sprayed during optimal conditions. The appellate court also determined that the trial court had ruled properly on evidentiary matters and that the plaintiff had not proven the alleged monetary damages to the trees properly. The appellate court also upheld the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial. 


The legal issues that farmers and ranchers deal with are potentially very large.  Today’s post examined just a small slice.  It’s always helpful to know what the rules are when the issue arises.

Civil Liabilities, Real Property | Permalink


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