OLYMPIA — Washington farmers with corn mazes, pumpkin patches and other visitor attractions are asking legislators to shield them from lawsuits by injured visitors who didn’t heed warning signs.
Many states, including Oregon and Idaho, have granted agritourism operators immunity from claims arising from injuries and deaths, as long as visitors are alerted to farm hazards.
Several farmers told the Senate agriculture committee at a hearing Feb. 16 that they warn customers about slippery ground, sharp-toothed animals and moving tractors. But they still see cringe-inducing behavior and fear bankrupting lawsuits.
“To be frank, it is a disheartening and sickening feeling to know my family is at risk,” Ellensburg U-pick pumpkin farmer Hilary Huffman said.
Senate Bill 5808 has cleared the low hurdle of passing the agriculture committee, on a 6-3 vote. The committee’s chairwoman, Moses Lake Republican Judy Warnick, sponsored the bill. The same legislation was introduced in the House, but was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and did not receive a hearing.
A lobbyist for lawyers who represent plaintiffs in civil suits, Larry Shannon of the Washington State Association for Justice, said state law already provides some liability protection for landowners who open their property for recreation. He said farmers could also have visitors sign waivers.
Shannon said he was concerned about the breadth of Warnick’s proposal.
“We’re talking largely about kids, putting them around heavy machinery, putting them into activities that have a danger that may not be apparent to those kids,” he said.
Farmers said they do what they can to keep kids and adults safe, but sometimes it’s not enough. “We’ve actually had to put signs up, telling people not to not to jump off our bridges, which are 12-feet tall in our corn maze,” said Rob Rutledge of Rutledge Corn Maze in Olympia.
Olympia farmer Jeff Schilter said he recently settled a lawsuit filed by an 83-year-old man who slipped at a private event on the farm, injuring his leg so severely that it had to be amputated. Schilter said he had suggested the event be canceled because of rain.
“We can’t put a sidewalk out in the middle of a field, just because of practicality, but also because of government regulations,” he said.
Many farmers said their families have been in agriculture for generations. They said they turned to agritourism to stay profitable.
Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said that a Clark County farm with agri-tourist activities has seen its liability insurance rates increase by 400 percent the past two years.
“There is a problem that we need to fix,” he said. “There is a reason for this bill.”
To gain protection from lawsuits, farmers would have to post a sign warning visitors that they are assuming the risk.