Legal-Ease: Who’s responsible when crops obstruct views?

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Lee R. Schroeder

With many farmers having already planted their corn and other crops this year, the issue of safety where crops are planted near roadway intersections will again become important. If the crop obstructs the view of traffic and an accident results, who may be responsible for the accident?

Generally, a landowner or farmer can be found responsible for accidents resulting from a farm crop (usually corn) that unreasonably obstructs views at an intersection if the crop is planted on the right-of-way (easement) or upon property owned by the government (municipality, township or state).

Usually, the government owns or has the right to use more land than exactly where the road is located. There are often road shoulders, some grass and sometimes open ditches located beside each roadway. Those attributes are located on property controlled by the government related to facilitating the use of the road.

Landowners and farmers are charged with knowing exactly where the government’s property ends and where the landowner’s or farmer’s exclusive ownership/use begins. Landowners and farmers who do not know where that line is located should be careful to ensure that no crops whatsoever will obstruct views at an intersection.

Overall, governments are usually pretty laid back as to the farmers who plant and make productive use of the government property right beside the actual road. However, landowners and farmers take risks if crops are planted on the right-of-way or property owned by the government for a roadway, and those crops unreasonably obstruct the view of a driver at that intersection.

Landowners and farmers must ensure that any crops planted on any right-of-way or easement will not be inconsistent with the roads’ use and will not be an unreasonable hazard to the users of the highway. Notably, this requirement applies to farmers and landowners alike, even if the land is rented to a tenant farmer. Therefore landlords should ensure that their leases with tenants dictate that the farmer keeps crops clear from intersections and make the tenant farmers liable for damages from accidents if they farmers do not keep intersections free from obstructed views from crops.

Therefore, generally, travelers who have accidents that are caused at least in part by obstructed views from farm crops may have the ability to recover at least something from the landowners and the farmer if three requirements are met.

First, the crop must be planted on property owned by the government for the road or upon which the government has a right-of-way for the road.

Second, the crop must be inconsistent with a highway purpose. For example, grass or hay planted to stop erosion along the road, even if harvested later, might be considered consistent with a highway purpose, even if it obstructs the views of some vehicles.

Third, the crop must be an unreasonable hazard to the roads’ users. If a crop’s location still allows the ability to see several hundred feet in either direction of the intersection, the crop’s location is likely not an unreasonable hazard to the roads’ users.