Can You Be Liable for Damages from a Harvest Fire?

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

Old rusty farm truck with flat tires (Glyn Baker, wikicommons).
Old rusty farm truck with flat tires (Glyn Baker, wikicommons).

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:

Green combine caught on fire (Source
Green combine caught on fire (Source
  1. The incident is one that ordinarily does not happen without the absence of negligence;

  2. The instrumentality that produced the incident was under the exclusive control and management of the alleged wrongdoer; and

  3. 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 pi