By Peggy Kirk Hall, director of agricultural law, Ohio State University Agricultural and Resource Law Program
Farm neighbor laws have been around nearly as long as there have been farm neighbors. From trees to fences to drainage, farmers can impact and be impacted by their neighbors. In the spirit of managing these impacts and helping everyone get along, our courts and legislatures have established a body of laws over the years that allocate rights and responsibilities among farm neighbors. Explaining these laws is the goal of our new series on farm neighbor laws.
Here’s a timely farm neighbor problem that we’ve heard before: Farmer’s soybeans are looking good and Farmer is anxious for harvest. But some neighbors drive their ATV into the field and flatten a big section of Farmer’s beans. What can Farmer do about the harm?
Ohio’s “reckless destruction of vegetation law” might be the solution. The law, Ohio Revised Code Section 901.51, states that “no person, without privilege to do so, shall recklessly cut down, destroy, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree, or crop standing or growing on the land of another or upon public land.” This law could provide a remedy if its three components fit Farmer’s situation:
- Destruction or injury to a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree, or crop on the land of another
- No privilege.
A key requirement of the law is “recklessness.” Under Ohio law, a person is “reckless” if the person acts with heedless indifference to the consequences or disregards the risk that the person’s conduct is likely to cause a certain result. For example, if the neighbors were out driving the ATV at night and simply didn’t care where they were and that their actions could be harming Farmer’s property, that behavior is likely to rise to the level of “recklessness.” Alternatively, if another driver ran the neighbors off the road and the neighbors tried but could not avoid going into the bean field, their behavior isn’t likely to be deemed “reckless.”
A second requirement is destruction or injury to vegetation on another’s land. In the unlikely event that Farmer’s soybeans aren’t actually injured or destroyed, the law wouldn’t apply. Note that the law doesn’t just apply to a crop like soybeans, but also includes other vegetation such as vines, bushes, shrubs, and trees, recognizing that all of these types of vegetation have value for a landowner.
The final requirement is “without privilege to do so.” Privilege in the context of this law means “permission.” As long as Farmer didn’t tell the neighbors they could drive their ATV through his field, Farmer could prove that the neighbors did not have privilege or permission to cause the destruction and injuries to Farmer’s beans.
So what? The law clearly prohibits the neighbors from recklessly destroying Farmer’s beans, but what happens if they do? The law also addresses this question by stating that a violator of the law is liable “in treble damages.” Attorneys always take notice of treble damages language because it requires the damages award to be tripled after a judge or jury determines the amount of the actual harm. This tripling of damages is intended to punish the person for their “recklessness.” So, if a jury decided that the value of Farmer’s lost beans is $1,000, the treble damages would result in a $3,000 award against the neighbors due to their reckless destruction of Farmer’s crop.
There is also a criminal element to the law. The law states that a violator is also guilty of a fourth-degree misdemeanor. That would require a criminal proceeding by the local law enforcement, and the result could be no more than 30 days in jail and up to $250 in fines.
If the reckless destruction law doesn’t apply, Farmer would need to look to other mechanisms for resolving the harm. If the neighbors were trespassing, trespass laws could provide a remedy but wouldn’t award treble damages. Or the Farmer’s property insurance might address the harm. But if the neighbors destroyed Farmer’s beans by behaving recklessly, the reckless destruction of vegetation law can help resolve this farm neighbor issue.