A farmer’s duty of care
The law imposes upon landowners the responsibility for taking reasonable care to ensure the safety of persons entering on their premises. Many activities performed in the conduct of farm operations present some measure of risk to the physical safety of farmers, their families, and guests. Where someone suffers injury, in what circumstances does the law impose liability on the farmer to compensate for damages suffered?
In a case considered by a trial court in British Columbia, a six-year-old girl was severely burned during a visit with a farm family. To remove wasps from a hayrack, the farmer had poured gasoline on a wasp’s nest and ignited it. Sometime thereafter, after the farmer had left the vicinity but while a fire continued to burn beneath the hayrack, the farmer’s twelve-year-old daughter, in attempting to throw additional gasoline on the wasp’s nest, inadvertently poured gasoline on the continuing fire, causing the flames which engulfed both the daughter and young visitor. The child suffered permanent disfigurement and scarring. In a subsequent court action, the trial judge found that the farmer had failed to take reasonable care for the child’s reasonable safety and awarded her compensation for her injuries, deformity, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life.
On the other hand, in a later case considered by the Manitoba Court of Appeal, the Court held that a farmer (or his insurer) should not be liable to compensate the farmer’s new bride for the loss of her lower left leg in an auger used in the removal of manure from a chicken barn. On the day of the accident, the couple had just returned from their honeymoon and went to the barn to clean out the manure in preparation for delivery of a new flock of chickens the following day. Although the new bride had never lived on a farm or, in fact, visited the barn, she volunteered to assist the farmer in the cleaning operation. The auger was located below floor level in an open trench located approximately at the centre of the barn running across its width. After manure was flushed from the cages with water under pressure, the manure slurry was scraped by hand to the location of the auger and transported by the auger up a shoot and into a fertilizer spreader. While assisting her husband in scraping the manure slurry into the auger, the farmer’s wife slipped on the wet floor, causing her left foot to become entangled in the auger which resulted in the loss of her lower left leg.
In reviewing and upholding the decision of the trial judge, the Appellate Court had noted that the farmer had warned his wife that the auger was a dangerous piece of equipment and that she knew the floor surface was slippery because of the manure slurry. With respect to the farmer’s duty to take reasonable care for the safety of his wife, the Court held that:
“The case against (the farmer) is to be determined on whether he met the duty of care required of him….While cleaning the chicken barn was a new experience for (the wife), it was the kind of task that required little explanation or supervision. She saw the way (the farmer) sprayed the chicken cages and volunteered to do that task. With the auger operating and with the slurry of chicken manure on the floor, I think it was highly dangerous for her to have proceeded down the aisle with her back towards the auger. But that is not the way things had begun. On the occasions when he had observed her…(the farmer’s) testimony was that she had been proceeding in a forward direction.
I find myself in agreement with the conclusion of (the trial judge) that there was no breach of the duty of care by (the farmer).”
To decide in any particular case whether a farmer has breached his legal duty to take reasonable care to ensure the safety of his premises, a court will consider all of the factors relevant to the accident which has occurred. Whether the court will impose liability on a farmer for breach of this duty and require him to compensate the accident victim will depend upon the court’s assessment of the inherent danger of the activity undertaken and the measures available to the farmer to have avoided the injury which resulted.