Up a Ladder

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One of my clients climbed up a ladder to get something she was storing above our grain room. She fell and broke her arm and now wants me to pay for the medical bills. Am I responsible?

I do not authorize anyone to store things in that area, but I did not specifically tell them no. I assume that the areas we do give them will suffice and I had no idea she had stashed something up there—it is barn storage. I also don't have a sign that asks people not to climb the ladder. I just assume that it’s common sense.

Let me discuss two issues before I respond directly to your question. Assuming that you have liability insurance as part of your policy, you probably have coverage for medical expenses. Insurance companies usually pay this coverage even when there is no liability because it is often less expensive for them to write the check and settle the matter than deal with the potential for litigation involving damages. So the first thing that you should do is contact your insurance company and see whether you are covered in this situation.

You should also look at your boarding contract. The question here is whether it releases liability only for those accidents that involve horses, or whether it releases liability for any accident that happens from the time your boarders drive onto your property until the time that they leave. Many of the boarding contracts and releases that I’ve seen, especially from the Internet, just reference the risks associated with horses. The reality is, however, that farms are dangerous places, even without animals. As the accident you describe shows, people can be injured almost anywhere, and your releases should reflect that fact.

Having dealt with these two issues, let’s start looking at whether you are liable in the above situation. Broadly speaking, as a business owner, you have an obligation to protect your customers from danger. Basically, you invited this person onto your property, and incurred an obligation to make sure that she left it safely. But she got hurt, and the question then becomes whether a reasonable businessperson would have taken steps to ensure that people did not go into the loft.

I am sure you’ve seen signs in many businesses saying “Employees Only” or “No Admittance.” The reason that companies put up these signs is to make sure that customers don’t go into places that are dangerous. Beside the obvious concern for the safety of their customers, it is also to avoid the litigation potential that you find yourself in. Given the propensity of businesses to use signs to protect themselves (and their customers) in this type of situation, I think you would find it difficult to convince a jury that you weren’t negligent for failing to put up cautionary signs.

Admittedly, most stables don’t have these warning signs. An argument could be made that the equine industry doesn’t use signs, but instead relies on the common sense of their customers, which I think is true. Your argument to the jury would be along the lines of, “Every one knows going up a ladder is dangerous, wouldn’t a reasonable person realize the risk?”

The question is, how compelling would this argument be to a jury? It depends upon where you live. If your jury pool is predominately urban dwellers with little or no experience on farms, I don’t think it will fly. If you live in an area that is predominately rural, with many people that have worked on farms, it becomes more credible, as jury members would have experience with the difficulties of getting into and out of lofts, and probably know of someone who was injured in a loft accident. This first-hand knowledge gives them a basis to agree with your argument that common sense says that people should understand the dangers of lofts.

Unfortunately, the reality of this accident is the unwillingness of many people in the horse industry to think of their operation first as a business that, by the way, deals with horses. You would not expect to be allowed onto the loading dock at your local grocery store because of the dangers, but no one in the horse industry thinks about the similar dangers involved in lofts and other dangerous areas on their farms. Farm work consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States; yet as an industry we fail to adopt aggressive safety programs to protect our customers.

My advice is to attempt to settle this claim by paying the medical expenses. If you can settle this case for merely the medical expenses and don’t have to pay any other damages (such as loss of wages and pain and suffering), I think you would probably save money. Have a lawyer draw up a release for you, so that the payment does constitute a complete release of liability. And immediately start taking steps to block off or warn your customers of all dangerous areas in your barn.