Can You Be Liable for Damages from a Harvest Fire?
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
This post should not be construed upon as legal advice.
I realize harvest season is pretty much completed and things are winding down for the winter, but today let’s talk about harvest field fires. Fires during harvest are not uncommon and sources are many; a bearing can go out or get hot, a pickup’s exhaust pipe, bad wiring, and I’m sure you can give me more examples of how a fire can start during harvest. But what is your potential liability for a harvest fire that spreads to your neighbor’s property? A recent decision out of Nebraska highlights how states have handled this issue.
In Lamprecht v. Schluntz, the Schluntz family was out harvesting wheat using a tractor and grain cart. The possible source of the fire was an electrical short in the tractor based on testimony from a member of the Schluntz family who saw a burnt wire under the tractor, but the tractor or the grain cart were not destroyed in the fire. The fire eventually spread to Lamprecht’s wheat field. The Lamprechts filed a lawsuit against the Schluntz family and utilized a theory of res ipsa loquitur. The trial court dismissed the Lamprecht lawsuit and the Lamprechts appealed.
Earlier, I wrote about res ipsa loquitur as it relates to escaping livestock cases. Res ipsa loquitur requires a plaintiff to prove three elements:
The incident is one that ordinarily does not happen without the absence of negligence;
The instrumentality that produced the incident was under the exclusive control and management of the alleged wrongdoer; and
An absence of explanation by the alleged wrongdoer.
In the case of fires, the issue will be: does a fire not occur in the absence of negligence?
As the Court of Appeals of Nebraska points out, fires do happen without negligence, but the circumstances under which a fire occurs may justify the application of res ipsa loquitur. The only prior case involving fire and the res ipsa loquitur doctrine in Nebraska involved a vending machine catching fire in a lunchroom. The Nebraska Supreme Court rejected the application of res ipsa loquitur in that case because there were no previous cases attempting to apply the doctrine in similar situations. The court of appeals in the Lamprecht v. Schluntz case finds no previous Nebraska decisions applying the doctrine to field fires caused by equipment, but found the doctrine had been rejected by other states in similar fact situations.
In Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, res ipsa loquitur was rejected in fire cases where the 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 that 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 does highlight two California cases that applied res ipsa loquitur from fires resulting from trucks. One involved a truck in a barn full of hay which allegedly caught the hay on fire from its 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 from a logging truck not fitted with proper equipment to prevent fires but had been blowing smoke. In that case, the court found forest fires, other than from lightening, 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. None of the explanations were, more likely than not, explained by negligence. The fact that the fire potentially started from an electrical short was not enough to lead to an inference of negligence. The court concludes that fires, such as the one here, can start from reasons other than negligence.
The court rejects the plaintiff’s claim of res ipsa loquitur because the plaintiff is unable to prove the first element. The court never looks at elements two and three. The court of appeals affirms the trial court’s dismissal of the case.
What does this mean for you? Growing up on a wheat farm in OK, I learned early on harvest is stressful enough without having to worry about potential liability for an uncontrollable incident. This case shows that when faced with the issue of liability from a field fire, courts recognize that these types of fires can happen for a whole host of reasons, not just an agricultural producer’s negligence. The fire itself is not going to create liability, but potential facts could.
Let’s change up the facts on this case; the outcome is potentially different if it is shown the fire was started by a bearing on a combine the operator knew was going out. For example, most operators check belts and chains and grease the machine each day. If the operator checked a shaft, could tell the bearing was about to go out (had too much play in it, etc.) and decided to chance it that day, that may change the situation and create liability if a fire were to start. It is important to remember that with negligence cases, fact changes can alter outcomes and create liability.
Lamprecht v. Schluntz, 23 Neb. App. 335 (2015)