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Iowa court rules farm tours safe from injury suits

Iowa Correspondent

MILO, Iowa — The Iowa Supreme Court has passed HF 649, a measure that safeguards farmers and landowners who allow visitors onto their farms for tours and other recreational purposes from liability – a measure that unanimously passed the Iowa House and Senate, and is before Gov. Terry Branstad.

“This is a big win for Iowa farmers and all Iowans who want to experience and learn more about life on the farm,” said Craig Hill, a Milo farmer and president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF). “By restoring this liability protection that farmers have had for four decades, the Legislature took a common sense approach that will be good for all Iowans.”

On Feb. 15, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled farmers hosting farm tours weren’t protected from personal injury lawsuits under the state’s current recreational use law, a move that would have hindered farmers from holding such events on their properties. In addition, the February ruling would have made Iowa farmers and private landowners liable if a visitor was injured while on their land for recreational purposes such as fishing, hunting and field trips.

The review stemmed from a 2010 case where Kimberly Sallee of Oelwein filed a negligence lawsuit against Matthew and Diana Stewart of Stewartland Holsteins in Oelwein. The Stewarts hosted Sallee’s kindergarten class from Sacred Heart School while she was chaperoning during a farm tour on their property.

According to the lawsuit, while Sallee was watching her students, who were permitted by the Stewarts to climb the haystacks, she fell through a hayloft chute that was covered by hay bales. She sustained a broken wrist and ankle in the fall.

After Sallee filed her case in Fayette County Court, Judge Margaret Lingreen threw out the claim, saying the state’s current recreational use immunity shielded the Stewarts from such lawsuits. Under a 1967 law, Iowa landowners are protected from most personal liability if they make their private property available for agricultural tours and other recreational events.

Because of Iowa’s growing agritourism industry, the February ruling would have had broad implications on whether farmers would have been dissuaded from hosting educational tours on their properties for fear of being sued.

“As farmers, we recognize the importance of visiting with non-farm audiences about what we do,” said Mindy Larsen Poldberg, director of governmental relations at the Iowa Corn Growers Assoc.

“It is unfortunate that this chaperone was injured, but it may set a precedent that would influence the open-door policy that helps consumers understand the farm-to-food cycle.”

According to the IFBF, the Iowa Supreme Court imposed a far more narrow interpretation of “recreational” and liability protection than those Iowa farmers have had since the 1970s. Back then, the law said landowners could be protected “only if they opened up their land to the general public and if the recreational activity occurred outdoors, not in a barn or shed.” IFBF officials added the law also ruled that landowners lost liability protection if they acted as tour guides on the farm, which had prompted many legal experts to recommend Iowa farmers “severely limit the visitors onto their land or close their farm gates completely.” Hill said HF 649 not only restores liability protection for previous activities, it also includes educational activities, directs broad interpretation, eliminates public access concerns and “removes the peril from the ‘tour guide’ role of landowners.” “The unanimous vote is a clear indication that the legislation is a common-sense measure that will serve the needs of farmers, landowners and the general public,” he said.