Should you allow farm visits?

Contributed by Melissa O’Rourke, B.S., M.A., J.D. Farm & Agribusiness Management Specialist, Iowa State University Extension & Outreach, morourke@iastate.edu 

Sallee vs. Stewart: Does chaperoning a school tour, which includes a trip to the barn hay loft for kindergarten children to play on hay bales, constitute a “recreational use” as that term is used in Iowa’s recreational use statute found at Iowa Code chapter 461C? 

The Iowa Supreme Court recently announced a ruling that raises issues about the wisdom of having visitors – including group tours or open house events – on the farm. It is worth taking time to review the facts of the case and the basis for the Court’s decision as farmers and landowners consider how to react to the recent announcement. 

Facts: 

Each year, the kindergarten class of Sacred Heart Elementary School in Oelwein, Iowa made a field trip to the dairy farm of Matt and Diana Stewart (Stewart Land Holsteins) in rural Fayette County. The group of visitors included the children, teacher and several parents serving as chaperones. At least one member of the Stewart family stayed with the group in a tour guide role at all times. 

On May 18, 2010, the kindergarten class arrived at the Stewart farm for their scheduled visit. Accompanying the group as a chaperone was Kimberly Sallee whose daughter was in the kindergarten class. In the Court’s opinion, Kim Sallee is described as “a very large woman.”  For the dairy farm visit, the Stewarts arranged three stations for the students providing the following experiences: (1) riding a horse in a round pen; (2) feeding a calf a bottle of milk; and (3) going to the hayloft where the children could climb and play on hay bales. A Stewart family member was present at each station. At the hayloft station, Matt Stewart asked Kim Sallee and another parent to go into the loft ahead of the students to assist them at the top of the ladder.  Matt Stewart assured Sallee that the ladder would support her weight. Sallee, the other parent, Matt and the children proceeded to the hayloft and the children played on the hay bales. The children were warned to not climb too high on the bales of hay. The Stewart’s hayloft is equipped with “hay drops” – rectangular holes through which bales of hay can be thrown to animals below.  Stewarts ordinarily stack bales of hay across the hay drop holes when not in use to insulate the lower part of the barn. Prior to the kindergarten tour, Matt inspected the hayloft and stood on bales of hay covering the holes to make sure they would support his weight. He did not warn Sallee or others of the presence of the hay drops, nor did he warn them to not stand on these bales. While in the hay loft, Sallee stood on top of a bale covering one of the hay drops. The bale gave way, Sallee fell through the hay drop and broke her wrist and ankle/leg. 

Procedural History: 

Kim Sallee incurred medical bills and lost time from work. As is typical, the court’s opinion does not state whether the Stewart’s had liability insurance. However, it is worth noting that the on the website of the Stewart’s law firm, the list of representative clients is exclusively insurance companies. Assuming that the Stewart’s did have premises liability insurance, this lawsuit likely included what are known as subrogation issues – that is, Sallee’s medical insurer would seek reimbursement from Stewart’s liability insurer for medical bill payments. Additionally, Sallee would seek compensation for her pain and suffering, lost time from work, and her possible temporary or permanent disability due to the injuries she suffered by falling through the hay drop on the Stewart’s farm. 

 Sallee filed a lawsuit in August 2010. The Stewart’s argued that they should not be liable for Sallee’s injuries based on Iowa Code chapter 461C – the recreational use statute. By April 2011 the Stewart’s filed a motion for summary judgment – a motion that essentially asked the judge to dismiss the case against them based on a shield from liability arising from the Iowa recreational use statute. While the district court initially ruled in favor of the Stewart’s, appeals followed and the case eventually wound its way to the Iowa Supreme Court. 

On February 15, 2013, the Court issued a 75-page opinion (including a special concurrence and a dissent) with in-depth discussion on a wide range of legal issues related to recreational statutes throughout the U.S. The lengthy opinion reads much like a scholarly law review article.  

Discussion: 

Iowa’s recreational use statute as found at Iowa Code chapter 461C provides in pertinent part that “an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes . . . or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on such premises to persons entering for [recreational] purposes.”  The statute goes on to provide that “a holder of land” who invites a person onto that land, without charging them, and allows the property to be used for “recreational purposes” does not “extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose” or “assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act or omission of such persons.”  

Of particular note, the Iowa statute provides a definition of “Recreational purpose” to include the following specific list of activities: “Hunting, trapping, horseback riding, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, motorcycling, nature study, water skiing, snowmobiling, other summer and winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archaeological, scenic, or scientific sites while going to and from or actually engaged therein.”  See generally Iowa Code chapter 461C. 

The Court discusses the history and development of recreational use statutes as well as a detailed review of court decisions from around the U.S. Thereafter, the opinion includes the legislative history and analysis of Iowa’s recreational use statute that was first enacted in 1967 and has thereafter been amended several times. The Court notes that at least half of the states with recreational use statutes containing a definition of “recreational use” include the phrase “includes but is not limited to.”  Iowa’s definition does not include this or any other kind of “catchall provision” but rather includes a specifically enumerated list of activities. While there are few cases interpreting Iowa’s recreational use statute, the opinion reviews those most relevant to the Sallee lawsuit. 

Finally, the Iowa Supreme Court reached the facts of the Sallee case and considered this central question: Did Kimberly Sallee’s activities on the Stewart farm constitute a recreational use within the meaning of the Iowa recreational use statute?  The Court went through a detailed analysis, including the basic rules of statutory construction (legal interpretation). The Court concluded that “the activities which occurred in the hayloft do not constitute recreational uses under the Iowa statute.”  The Court’s opinion holds that immunity is only available under the Iowa recreational use statute if guests are on the property for the purpose of engaging in one of the activities specifically listed in Iowa Code chapter 461C. It is also worth noting that the Court focused on what Kim Sallee and the children were doing at the time of the injury. So, even though the kindergarten students engaged in horseback riding and calf feeding (which can be classified as “nature study”) – because the students were playing in the hay loft and Sallee was a chaperone of that play activity at the time of injury, there was no immunity for the Stewart’s under these facts. Thus, consider this scenario: A farmer or landowner allows a visitor to hunt on the farm property and at some point that individual stops hunting and engages in an activity not included in the statutory list of “recreational use” activities (such as collecting firewood). The visitor is injured while engaged in that wood collection activity. Under the Court’s analysis, immunity under Iowa’s recreational use statute is unavailable to the farmer/landowner – and liability is incurred for the visitor’s injuries and damages. 

Implications for Iowa Farmers and Landowners 

After this ruling, Iowa farmers and landowners should give careful thought before inviting or allowing visitors to their farms – including large or small groups for the purpose of a field trip or tour, or individuals who seek (for example) to hunt, trap, fish or hike. Farms are full of hazards, and all farm operators must be particularly vigilant regarding farm safety – for family members and relatives, employees, and occasional visitors. However, in light of the Sallee decision, farmers and landowners should consider the following: 

  1. Adult Visitors: While adults can be required to sign a release before visiting, this may be of limited use, if any. Should the farmer or landowner wish to consider this option, it should only be upon the specific advice of an attorney consulted for this purpose, and using a release drafted by that attorney (NOT a form found on a website). But remember – in Iowa, parents cannot sign a release waiving the claims of their minor children so there is absolutely no protection in this regard.
  2. Premises Liability Insurance: In consultation with your own legal professional, obtain formal, written assurance from your premises liability insurer that any damages incurred by any person in the course of visiting your farm or farmland are clearly and specifically covered by your policy – and that your coverage limits are adequate. Without such written assurance, farmers and landowners should refrain from such activities. Again, farmers and landowners should seek individual legal advice in this regard.
  3. Legislation: Consider contacting your state legislators and ask that the Iowa statute be amended to specifically include agricultural or farm-based activities – tours, 4H groups, school and other youth groups – to include their teachers, parents, chaperones. While we should always take care to minimize dangerous conditions on our property, accidents do happen. Specifically, the Iowa legislature will need to study what language is needed to abrogate the legal effect of the Sallee case.

Each reader should contact their own attorney and insurer to obtain legal and liability advice based on their own situation. 

Note: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach does not provide legal advice. Any information provided is intended to be educational and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from a competent professional retained by an individual or organization for that purpose.

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