IOWA CITY - Farmers who host educational tours for the public are not shielded from personal injury lawsuits under a law meant to promote recreation on private lands, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The owners of a dairy farm in northeast Iowa can be sued by a woman who was injured when she fell through a hole in a hayloft while chaperoning a field trip, the court said in a 5-2 ruling that could have a broad statewide impact.
The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation had warned justices that allowing farmers to face liability in such cases would jeopardize hands-on educational tours in which they teach the public about food, animals and agriculture. Hundreds of school visits take place at Iowa farms every year, and owners who are worried about facing lawsuits may be unwilling to continue, the group argued in a friend-of-the-court brief.
At issue is the interpretation of a 1967 law that bars lawsuits against landowners who open their property to the public for recreational uses such as hunting, hiking and snowmobiling. The majority ruled that Iowa lawmakers never intended the law to bar legal claims for injuries suffered in a dairy barn while "frolicking in a hayloft as part of a guided tour."
The suit was filed in 2010 by Kimberly Sallee, who chaperoned her daughter's kindergarten class trip from Oelwein to a farm owned by Matthew and Diana Stewart. Students who visited would learn about a typical day on the farm, where they participated in activities such as riding a horse, feeding a calf, seeing a tractor and playing in a hayloft. The Stewarts supervised the activities.
Sallee climbed the ladder to the hayloft and unknowingly stood on hay bales that covered a hole in the floor. When the bales collapsed, she fell several feet and broke her wrist and leg. She filed a lawsuit against the Stewarts, alleging their negligence caused her injuries.
A district judge dismissed the lawsuit two years ago, ruling the Stewarts were immune from liability under the recreational use law. The students had engaged in horseback riding and the study of nature, activities specifically mentioned in the law, the judge found.
An appeals court overturned the decision last year, ruling 2-1 that the Stewarts were not immune because they were responsible for guiding the tour.
Justice Brent Appel, writing for the majority in Friday's opinion, said all states have laws that limit liability against landowners for recreational activities, but Iowa's was more limited than some others. He said Sallee was not participating in any of the specific activities covered by the law when she was injured.
The goal of limiting the law is to "avoid the absurd result" of applying the immunity so broadly that it would bar lawsuits over injuries at a backyard barbecue or a driveway basketball game, he wrote.
"The Legislature clearly has not empowered this court to expand or update the list of recreational purposes," Appel wrote. "While such an action might be supported by policy reasons, any such action must be taken by the Legislature, not by us."
But dissenting Justice Edward Mansfield said from its outset, Iowa's law was designed to encourage farmers to offer free recreational use of their lands and buildings. The decision "turns this law upside down" and takes away their long-standing legal immunity, he wrote.
Ray Walton, a Waterloo lawyer who represents Sallee, said the case would return for a civil trial in Fayette County, where he hopes to prove her claims. He said the ruling would only affect landowners who participate in the activities of their guests, such as leading tours, and would not affect those who simply allow hunting or fishing.
"It's a significant one for everybody in Iowa - people that have land and people that go on that land," he said. "I think the Iowa Supreme Court got it right."