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Ag Torts 101: Duty and Standard of Care

As noted in this previous blog, the common law elements of negligence are:  1) duty, 2) breach, 3) causation, and 4) damages.  The most important element is duty.  So when does one owe a legal duty to another?  If there is a duty then what standard of care applies?

The general rule is that a person or business owes a duty to foreseeable victims of his/her carelessness.  Courts differ somewhat on how exactly that is measured.  The majority of courts view that one doesn’t owe a duty to people who are not in the “zone of danger.”  For example, if someone was particularly startled by a loud explosion on a neighboring farm a few miles away and ended up tripping and breaking his/her leg, then this person is no longer in the “zone of danger.”

Courts then look what standard of care that one has.  The default standard is the care that “a reasonable prudent person would have under similar circumstances.”  First year law students wake up in the middle of the night reciting this standard of care and become so accustomed to this term that they start using it in everyday language.  It is important to realize here that the standard of care isn’t what a person or business could have possibly have done to prevent the problem, but what a “reasonable prudent person” would have done in those circumstances.  It’s an objective test.

There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule.  The courts use different standards with people with superior skills, physical handicaps, children and professionals (e.g., doctors, lawyers, and architects).  Additionally, stautes themselves may establish a specific standard of care.  But most of the time, this plain vanilla standard of care will apply.


Iowa farmer is bailing hay and hired 4 high school kids to come help him. He is driving the tractor & bailer and accidentally hits a huge hole which ended up knocking one of the kids off the hay wagon.  Iowa farmer had a duty to the high school kid.  In order to decide liability, the court will ask if Iowa farmer behaved like a reasonably prudent hay farmer in those circumstances.

A Kentucky agriculture graphics design company managed web sites for farmers and ranchers all over the country.  They archived blogs for the farmers and ranchers into its database and managed print deadlines.  Lightening struck and the company’s computer system suffered serious problems.  It lost all archived data and all information relating to print deadlines.  In a negligence suit, the court will ask whether the Kentucky business acted like a reasonably prudent graphics design company who experienced a lightening storm.

There is another exception to this plain vanillia standard of care that affects farmers, ranchers and agribusiness owners:  premise liability.  Next time, I will discuss premise liability and the standard of care that landowners have against trespassers, licensees, and invitees.

"This blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. It is recommended that you speak to an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction before relying on the information in this blog."

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