Agritourism bill makes trip through Washington Legislature
Measure to provide defense against lawsuits
By DON JENKINS
3321790-ROP-R1199-IDConservation - Page 1 - Composite OLYMPIA — Farmers and ranchers with agritourist attractions will be shielded from lawsuits by injured visitors under legislation backed by the Washington state Senate and House and even accepted by trial lawyers.
Both chambers have passed similar versions of Senate Bill 5808, which is patterned after laws in many other states. The measure would allow farmers to guard against lawsuits by posting a carefully scripted sign warning visitors that they are assuming the risk of being around farm equipment and animals.
“I’m very excited. I’m going to sleep better at night.” Ellensburg pumpkin farmer and agritourist operator Hilary Huffman said Tuesday. “Fortunately, I haven’t been sued. But my attorney says it’s a matter of when, not if.”
The bill will apply to farmers and ranchers who host events and have activities such as hay rides, corn mazes and petting zoos. Agritourist operators say they caution visitors to be careful, but not everyone heeds the warning.
“What we can’t do is always cause an adult to act like one,” said Snohomish producer Keith Stocker, whose family farm has changed over the past century from dairy to truck farm to agritourism.
“We host tens of thousands on our farm every year, and it exposes us to a variety of interesting characters,” he said.
Lawsuits have apparently not been a widespread problem for agritourist operators around the country, though an Olympia farmer said he was sued and settled with a man who slipped in the mud and was severely injured.
Huffman said she learned about laws in other states at an agritourism conference, where lawsuits were the number one concern.
She brought the idea to Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell, who relayed it to Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, and Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, who introduced bills in their respective chambers.
The Washington State Association for Justice, a trade group of plaintiff attorneys, initially opposed the measure. The opposition softened, however. The bill was amended to strip farmers of protection if they “knowingly” allow in someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The Washington Farm Bureau said that added a requirement not found in other states.
Huffman said she is concerned about enforcing it. “My top employees are my 12- and 14-year-old kids and my 68and 69-year-old parents,” she said.
The lawyers’ lobbyist, Larry Shannon, said agritourism operators will have to watch for visitors overtly intoxicated or drugged, but they won’t have to study up on detecting substance abuse.
“We thought it was actually a good, solid compromise,” he said.
The Farm Bureau’s director of government relations, Tom Davis, said the bill still should help agritourism, including with buying liability insurance. “The general consensus is the bill still represents an improvement over current law,” he said.
“I’ll take what I can get,” Huffman said. “I feel like this is the beginning of good momentum for agritourism.”
Jewell, the county commissioner, said agritourism can help counties preserve open spaces.
“Under the state’s Growth Management Act requirements, there are very limited opportunities in many rural areas for economic development and this represents one that is becoming more valuable,” he said.
Shannon said that he’s a city resident who enjoys agritourist outings with his family.
“I appreciate the spirit they had coming forward with this bill,” he said. “I think it will do what they want it to do.”
The bill passed the House 96-0 on April 7 and the Senate 42-6 last month. Minor differences in the bill must be reconciled before it’s delivered to the governor.
A child surveys the pumpkin patch at Huffman Farms in Ellensburg, Wash. A bill to shield farmers and ranchers with agritourist attractions from liability lawsuits is moving through the state Legislature.
Courtesy of Huffman Farms/Rachel Smith Photography