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Liability for fires potentially caused by hay equipment

Paul Goeringer for Progressive Forage Published on 29 April 2019
Liability for fires

As we move toward that time of the year when many of you will be swathing and baling hay, it’s important to remember potential liability can exist if that swather or baler causes a fire that damages your neighbor’s or landlord’s property.

A fire might start from a bad bearing on a piece of equipment, an electrical short, a cigarette not being disposed of properly, etc.

In a typical hay equipment fire case, the court would typically apply the negligence doctrine. Negligence requires that the injured party show the person alleged to have caused the fire breach had a duty of care owed to the injured party. In some cases, a fire in a hayfield may have no real cause known.

In these cases, courts have been asked to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, but courts have often rejected this doctrine because field fires can start for a number of reasons other than negligence. In many of the court decisions reviewed, it’s important to remember courts often take into account that a field fire can start for reasons other than negligence and dismiss the cases.

You may have to pay for the fire damage from your equipment when the fire is caused by yours, your family members’ or your employees’ negligence. Negligence is the failure to exercise the proper duty of care in a situation. In any negligence case, the injured party must provide evidence to prove duty of care, breach of the duty, proximate cause and actual damages. For example, a landowner hires a custom operator to swathe and bale the landowner’s native grass.

While baling the hay, a bearing goes out on the baler and causes the hayfield to catch on fire. The custom operator would have a duty of care to operate his hay equipment in a manner to prevent damage to the landowner’s field. To determine breach of this duty of care, the parties would present evidence showing how the custom operator checked the hay equipment for issues with the equipment.

A recent Court of Appeals of Nebraska decision highlights how many courts may handle a fire potentially caused by farm equipment. In Lamprecht v. Schluntz, the Schluntz family was out harvesting wheat using a tractor and grain cart. A fire of unknown origin happened while harvesting the field.

The fire eventually spread to Lamprecht’s wheat field. The possible source of the fire was an electrical short in the tractor, based on testimony from a Schluntz family member who afterwards saw a burnt wire under the tractor, but the tractor or the grain cart were not destroyed in the fire. The Lamprechts filed a lawsuit against the Schluntz family using the negligence theory of res ipsa loquitur.

Res ipsa loquitur is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” With res ipsa loquitur, we infer the injured party has proved negligence happened just from the fact the party was injured. For res ipsa loquitur to apply, three elements must be proven:

  1. The incident is one which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence.

  2. The circumstances producing the incident were under the alleged wrongdoer’s exclusive control and management.

  3. The alleged wrongdoer has no explanation.

The Nebraska court highlights the issue in applying res ipsa loquitur in a field fire case. Fires often happen without negligence.

In Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, res ipsa loquitur was rejected in cases where possible cause of the fire was a piece of equipment under the defendant’s control. In Kansas, the fire was potentially started by a truck’s exhaust. In Missouri, one case involved a truck which had previously caught on fire while driving through a wheat field, while a second case involved a truck getting stuck in a rut, catching fire and destroying a nearby barn.

In Oklahoma, a truck was found on fire with wheat stubble burning around it. In each case, unexplained fires happened around or near trucks used on farms. But as all the courts pointed out, the mere fact the fire happened in such a manner did not mean the fire resulted from negligence. Fires often occur without negligence on anyone’s part.

The court highlights two California cases applying res ipsa loquitur to cases of fires resulting from trucks. One involved a truck in a barn full of hay which allegedly caught fire from the truck’s exhaust and sparks. Here the court found a fire did not normally occur under such circumstances without negligence. The other case involved a forest fire allegedly started by a logging truck not fitted with proper equipment to prevent fires but blowing smoke. In that case, the court found forest fires do not ordinarily start without negligence.

Looking at the Lamprecht v. Schluntz case, the only evidence of how the fire started was from the defendant seeing a flash under the tractor and later finding a burnt wire. But as testimony pointed out, field fires can be started by other sources. More likely than not, none of the explanations were negligence. The fact the fire potentially started from an electrical short was not enough to lead to an inference of negligence. The court concluded fires such as the one here can start from reasons other than negligence.

What does this mean for you in your operation? A potential fire starting on your property and spreading to neighboring properties might not always be cut-and-dry negligence cases. Prior court decisions highlight that in some cases the cause might not be negligence.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Philip Warren.

This is not legal advice.

Paul Goeringer
  • Paul Goeringer

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