5/17/2014 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delmarva Correspondent
CENTREVILLE, Md. — Paul Goeringer likes to joke that even his parents don’t like talking to lawyers.
That might be fine in most families, but Goeringer is an Extension legal specialist who helps farmers avoid legal loopholes and lawsuit nightmares.
Goeringer and William Pons both work with the University of Maryland Agriculture Law Education Initiative. Both offered some legal advice to poultry farmers at two Cooperative Extension meetings this week.
“No one wants an attorney. We’re expensive. I get it,” Pons said.
Their presentation Tuesday in Centreville was sprinkled with humor and commonsense ways to reduce legal liability. Goeringer joked that he likes to “keep calm” and have fingers crossed.
Farmers at the meeting were cautioned to keep dated and detailed records, take photographs, and be aware of potential legal concerns on their farms. The lawyers also told farmers that there is no way to completely eliminate liability and cautioned that they were speaking in general terms.
Farmers can take steps to substantially limit their liability, but “there is no way to eliminate 100 percent of legal risk,” Goeringer said. Those steps include taking photos, which should be time stamped, and keeping records and police reports if you have had problems with trespassers or other concerns.
Visitors or employees, such as catchers for the poultry integrator, need to be notified of any potential safety concerns on the farm, such as broken feed lines.
“I don’t speak Spanish,” answered one farmer.
He was told that a language barrier didn’t matter and that he needs to specifically point out any such safety problem to the crew chief.
Both lawyers spoke repeatedly about such proactive efforts as putting up signs, pointing out problems to visitors or simply being aware of possible concerns. Signs such as “no trespassing” or “beware of dog” may not keep a farmer out of court, but they are a good idea that can help your case, they said.
The lawyers were asked specifically if the biosecurity signs at poultry farms advising visitors not to enter were considered the same as “no trespassing” signs. The answer was yes.
All of those efforts create documentation that could work in a poultry farmer’s favor if they have to go to court, they said.
Farmers have less legal responsibility toward trespassers than toward other visitors, who are considered either licensees or invitees. But even with trespassers, farmers must avoid “wanton or willful” action that causes harm. For example, farmers cannot rig a booby trap that might injure a trespasser.
If a trespasser falls off a fence on the farm, the farmers is not likely to be held responsible. But if a farmer rigs an unseen tripwire knowing that it can’t be seen and is likely to result in injury, a farmer could be held legally responsible, Pons said.
The lawyers’ legal advice was offered in general terms and geared specifically toward Maryland farmers. Although the legal concepts aren’t limited to Maryland, they cautioned that different states often have slightly different agricultural laws.
The stakes for local farmers are enormous.
Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. statistics show that the poultry industry is a $7.5 billion economic engine on Delmarva. Those figures show that 1,600 family farms grow poultry on the Delmarva Peninsula and the industry as a whole employs 35,000 people. There are five poultry companies that directly employ some 13,500 people.
Pons and Goeringer both suggested that farmers be in touch with an attorney, perhaps to even do a risk audit before problems arise. There are a number of attorneys who specialize in agricultural law.
One farmer raised the touchy issue of whether he could be armed when confronting a trespasser on his private property. The lawyers suggested that while he could certainly carry a weapon, he would be better served by keeping his gun in his holster or not pointing it at anyone in a threatening manner.
Such action could help avoid a potential assault charge, Pons said.
“But we feel threatened” by trespassers, the farmer said.
“I understand,” Pons said.
The two also suggested that farmers try to better educate their neighbors, many of whom may not be familiar with farming practices, in an effort to head off potential lawsuits. Goeringer said holding a barbecue, starting a Facebook page or simply notifying others of what you are doing could help to head off misunderstandings.
He suggested farmers “Be willing to work with neighbors. Realize your neighbors may not know about ag and you may have to educate them. Help your neighbors understand what you do in your operation and practices you utilize.”
For more detailed information, farmers can contact Pons at 410-706-7214 or Goeringer at 301-405-3541.