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The leaves are falling, which means it’s the time of year when we are sharing the road with harvesting equipment. Hopefully everyone is being careful out there. But, what if a farm worker has an accident while driving a piece of farm equipment and injures someone or something? Who could be held liable? Sounds like it’s a good time to talk about “negligent entrustment.”
Employers can be held liable for accidents caused by their employees while their employees are acting within the scope of their employment. One way that employers can be held liable for vehicle accidents caused by their employees is if the employer is found to have “negligently entrusted” their employee with the vehicle.
Negligent entrustment is a civil cause of action that arises when the owner of a vehicle or other dangerous instrumentality (like farm equipment) negligently provides an impaired person with the vehicle or equipment, and the impaired person then injures a third person with the vehicle or equipment.
Impairment can include things like being too young to operate the vehicle, being too inexperienced to be able to safely handle the equipment, being intoxicated, etc. The vehicle owner is held liable because he or she either knew that the employee was impaired and gave them the vehicle or let them operate the equipment anyway, or the owner failed to do what a reasonable person would do to find out if the other person was somehow impaired before giving them the dangerous instrumentality, and the person does in fact injure others in a way that was foreseeable.
There is no one definition of negligent entrustment. Courts in most states, however, will generally look at whether the employer knew or should have known the employee was likely to use the vehicle or equipment in a way that could cause harm to themselves or others. A few examples include lending or renting a vehicle to:
An underage driver, including your child;
Someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
An elderly person with a revoked driver’s license; or
A person with a history of car accidents or reckless driving.
Measures that you can take to reduce your risk of liability from accidents involving trucks, tractors, and agricultural implements operated by your employees or by anyone that you might permit to use them include:
Properly and regularly maintaining your vehicles and equipment;
Asking prospective employees, volunteers, friends or family members for information about their experience operating vehicles and equipment;
Knowing the driving history of every employee, volunteer, friend or family member who may be operating your farm vehicles or equipment;
Establishing a No Drugs, No Alcohol Policy;
Requiring DOT physicals for employees who will be operating trucks;
Asking references for their opinions of prospective employee’s past experience operating equipment;
Being willing to refuse to issue equipment to, or to take equipment away from, someone who has not been trained to use it or who has misused or been reckless with it in the past; and
Documenting the things you do to ensure safe operations on your farm — and keeping all of those records.
In addition, talk to your insurance agent to make sure you understand whether your insurance policy covers a negligent entrustment claim brought against you, and talk to an attorney about how to protect your personal assets by creating a limited liability corporation, an irrevocable trust, or some other legal entity to hold your farm’s assets as well as its debts and liabilities.