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Beware: Negligent entrustment

Paul Goeringer for Progressive Forage Published on 16 July 2019

This time of year, you potentially have balers, swathers and other equipment utilized in your operation. Many states might be doing campaigns to remind the general public to take it easy around big farm equipment.

In many cases, this equipment is being operated by a trusted hired hand or trusted family member. What happens if this equipment is wrecked by the person you trusted to operate the machinery? What happens if a bystander is injured? Now that injured party is suing you for the injuries claiming negligent entrustment.

For example, Charlie leaves a dangerous item (such as farm equipment) with Fred. If Charlie knows or should know Fred is likely to use it in a risky manner, then Charlie might be held responsible for injuries caused by Fred operating the equipment. This example would highlight how negligent entrustment works. Because Charlie has knowledge Fred could be dangerous with the item, Charlie should not trust the thing to Fred to prevent others from being injured.

Negligent entrustment is a legal theory that allows an injured person to hold the owner of the dangerous property (such as farm equipment, livestock, etc.) liable for injuries caused by a person the owner knows could be hazardous with the equipment.

Looking back at our previous example, if Fred is Charlie’s 12-year-old son, Charlie has Fred move a tractor to a neighboring field. While driving the tractor down the road, Fred crashes the tractor into a passing vehicle. This is potentially negligent entrustment because Charlie knows Fred is too young to be operating a tractor on the road. Charlie entrusted Fred with the tractor to move it down the road.

The doctrine of negligent entrustment can vary from state to state in when courts will determine the owner had actual knowledge. In the past, courts have found that entrusting equipment to someone underage, someone with a history of operating equipment under alcohol or drugs, an elderly person and a person with a history of reckless driving are just a few examples. This actual knowledge can potentially be based on the person’s reputation that shows the possibility of acting dangerously with possession of the equipment. In some cases, the status may not always be enough to establish actual knowledge.

For example, Albert is hired to cut grass on a farm every two weeks with the understanding he should be done, and the tractor returned, to the barn by 5 p.m. Albert had previously been fired by this farmer for showing up to work while under the influence of alcohol. While cutting the grass on one occasion, Albert did not finish ‘til 6:30 p.m. and took the tractor on a late-night drinking binge.

Around midnight, Albert woke up under a tree, decided to take the tractor home without headlights and struck a motorcycle rider. In reviewing the evidence presented, the court found no evidence was shown that the farmer had knowledge Albert had a history of driving under the influence and was not a competent person to entrust with the tractor. To the court, Albert had taken the tractor without permission when he did not return it at 5 p.m. as was required.

How can you manage the potential issue of negligent entrustment? First, check your state labor laws to make sure the proper age children can start operating a tractor after completing a tractor safety course in the area. If an adult employee has a history of abusing drugs or alcohol, then do not allow that employee to operate equipment that could potentially be dangerous. If an elderly parent is working on the farm who might no longer be able to handle machinery or a vehicle, maybe it is time to have a discussion about changing that parent’s role in the operation. These are just some suggestions, and others such as your insurance agent or attorney may have other ideas.

As we see equipment moving up and down the roads this time of year, forage operators should take extra caution in who is entrusted to move farm machinery up and down the roads. Make sure this equipment is entrusted to those capable of handling the equipment and not those who might not be able to handle it. This will take away potential issues that could cost you down the road.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

This is not legal advice.

Paul Goeringer
  • Paul Goeringer

  • Extension Legal Specialist
  • University of Maryland
  • Email Paul Goeringer