As I write this column, I’m about one week into the exciting (and slightly stressful) process of wedding planning. As my bride-to-be and I explore our options, we are pleased to find farm venues are an increasingly trendy choice. This option provides a unique and relaxed setting for guests and outside sources of revenue for enterprising farmers. Traditionally, the field of “agritourism” was limited to wineries, dude ranches and pumpkin patches. Today, farmers have a multitude of new and creative opportunities to host celebrations, educational outings and recreational activities on the farm.
Although agritourism activities provide a new revenue stream not tied to market fluctuations, they’re also a new source of risk. Hosting on-farm events can expose landowners to legal liability for a guest’s injuries that occur during farm visits. There is no sure-fire way to completely eliminate these risks. However, here are three steps to help protect yourself and your operation:
Provide a safe environment. The most common lawsuit against hosts of events is for negligence. In general, a landowner is negligent if he or she fails to act with reasonable care toward guests and an injury results. The legal duty of care owed by landowners to guests is a matter of state law, which varies by jurisdiction. However, as a general rule, a landowner is required to provide an environment deemed safe to the “reasonable person.” Under the “reasonable person” standard, a landowner is liable only for injuries that could have been prevented with the exercise of reasonable care.
In practice, this comes down to exercising common sense. Understand the types of hazards your land and facilities pose to visitors. Man-made hazards, such as unattended farm equipment, chemicals and sharp objects, should be removed or cordoned off from the areas where guests will be visiting. Hidden natural hazards, such as groundhog holes in an area with foot traffic, should be remedied or brought to the visitors’ attention. It’s also important to consider the age of guests who will be visiting. Young children’s curiosity can pose special hazards and should be taken into consideration when planning events.
Comply with state agritourism laws. Many state legislatures have special protections for hosts of agritourism activities. These laws limit the liability to some degree. To receive protection under these laws, generally, hosts must display warning signs to inform guests the facility is subject to the agritourism law’s limitation of liability.
Although these laws might limit liability to an extent, they don’t absolve a landowner of all responsibility for the safety of their guests. For instance, many state agritourism statutes do not protect landowners if injuries result from a host’s negligence or if a host failed to warn a guest about an existing hazard.
Carry proper insurance. The cost of defending a lawsuit or paying out settlements or judgments can be financially devastating for a farming operation. Liability insurance is a valuable tool to hedge against the cost of a potential lawsuit. It’s important to regularly update your liability policy to ensure it covers all on-farm activities, including any events. You might need to buy additional riders if you open up events to the public. If you make your farm available for private events, it’s a good idea to require guests to procure their own insurance, naming your farm as a co-insured.
This column is not a substitute for legal advice.