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The Ag Law Harvest

By:Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Program Coordinator, OSU Income Tax Schools & ANR Extension Friday, July 28th, 2023
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It’s getting hot! And we are here to bring you even more heat. This month’s Ag Law Harvest takes you across the country and even across our northern border as we highlight some interesting court cases, a petition to the USDA, and some legislation coming across the desks of Governors from Maine to Oregon.

Ohio Court Determines That Dairy Farm Did Not Intentionally Harm Employee. 
In 2019, a dairy farm employee sustained serious injuries after getting caught in a PTO shaft while operating a sand spreader. After his injury, the employee filed a lawsuit against his employer for failing to repair or replace the missing safety guards on the PTO shaft and sand spreader. In his lawsuit, the employee alleged that the dairy farm’s failure to repair or replace the missing safety guards amounted to a “deliberate removal” of the equipment’s safety features making the dairy farm liable for an intentional tort. In other words, the employee was accusing his employer of intentionally causing him harm. Normally, workplace injuries are adjudicated under Ohio’s workers’ compensation laws, unless an employee can prove that an employer acted intentionally to cause the employee harm. 

For an employer to be held liable for an intentional tort under Ohio law, an employee must prove that the employer acted with the specific intent to injure an employee. An employee can prove an employer’s intent in one of two ways: (1) with direct evidence of the employer’s intent; or (2) by proving that the employer “deliberately removed” equipment safety guards and/or deliberately misrepresented a toxic or hazardous substance. Because there was no direct evidence to prove the dairy farm’s intent, the employee could only try his case under the theory that the dairy farm deliberately removed the safety guards, intentionally causing him harm. 

The case went to trial and the jury found the dairy farm liable and ordered it to pay over $1.9 million in damages. The dairy farm appealed to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals arguing that its failure to repair or replace does not amount to a “deliberate removal” of the safety guards from the PTO shaft and sand spreader. The appellate court agreed

The Twelfth District decided to apply a narrow interpretation of the term “deliberate removal.” The court held that a “deliberate removal” is defined as the “deliberate decision to lift, push aside, take off, or otherwise eliminate.” The evidence presented at trial showed that the shaft guard may have simply broken off because of ordinary wear and tear. Additionally, the evidence could not establish who removed the connector guard or if the connector guard did not also break off due to ordinary wear and tear. Thus, the Twelfth District found that the evidence presented at trial did not support a finding that the dairy farm made “a careful and thorough decision to get rid of or eliminate” the safety guards. Furthermore, the Twelfth District reasoned that an employer’s “failure to repair or replace a safety guard is akin to permitting a hazardous condition to exist” and that the “mere knowledge of a hazardous condition is insufficient to show intent to injure. . .” The Twelfth District vacated and reversed the $1.9 million judgment and entered summary judgment on the dairy farm’s behalf.  

USDA Receives Petition Over “Climate-friendly” Claims. 
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), asking the USDA to: (1) prohibit “climate-friendly” claims or similar claims on beef products; (2) require third-party verification for “climate-friendly” and similar claims; and (3) require a numerical on-pack carbon disclosure when such claims are made. The core legal issue is whether such “climate-friendly” labels and numerical carbon disclosures are protected and/or prohibited by the legal doctrine of commercial speech, which is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. EWG argues that the USDA has the authority to regulate such speech because commercial speech is only protected if it is not misleading. Additionally, EWG claims that requiring numerical carbon disclosures advances a substantial governmental interest by protecting consumers from fraud and deception. Although EWG has the legal right to petition the USDA, the USDA does not have to grant EWG’s petition, it must only consider the petition and respond within a reasonable time. 

Maine Governor Vetoes Ag Wage Bill.
Earlier this month Maine Governor, Janet Mills, vetoed Legislative Document 398 (“LD 398”) which required agricultural employers to pay their employees a minimum wage of $13.80 and overtime pay. Governor Mills stated that she supports the concept of LD 398 but was concerned about some of the bill’s language. The Maine legislature had the opportunity to override the Governor’s veto but failed to do so. After the legislature sustained her veto, Governor Mills signed an executive order establishing a formal stakeholder group to develop legislation that will establish a minimum wage for agricultural workers while also addressing the impacts the future legislation will have on Maine’s agriculture industry. 

A Big Thumbs Up! 
A Canadian judge recently found that a “thumbs-up” emoji is just as valid as a signature to a contract. In a recent case, a grain buyer, South West Terminal Ltd. (“SWT”), sent through text message, a deferred grain contract to a farming corporation owned and operated by Chris Achter (“Achter”). The contract stated that Achter was to sell 86 metric tonnes of flax to SWT at a price of $17 per bushel. SWT signed the contract, took a picture of the contract, and sent the picture to Achter along with a text message: “Please confirm flax contract”. Achter texted back a “thumbs-up” emoji. When the delivery date came and passed, Achter failed to deliver the flax to SWT which prompted SWT to file a lawsuit for breach of contract. SWT argued that Achter’s “thumbs-up” meant acceptance of the contract. Achter, on the other hand, claimed that the use of the emoji only conveyed his receipt of the contract. 

The Canadian court ultimately ruled in favor of SWT. The court relied on evidence that Achter and SWT had a pattern of entering into binding contracts through text message. In all previous occurrences, SWT would text the terms of the contract to Achter and Achter would usually respond with a “looks good”, “ok”, or “yup”. This time, Achter only responded with a “thumbs-up” emoji and the court concluded that an objective person would take that emoji to mean acceptance of the contract terms. Achter was ordered to pay over C$82,000 ($61,442) for the unfulfilled flax delivery. As the old saying goes: “a picture is worth a thousand words or tens of thousands of dollars.”  

Oregon Governor Signs Agriculture Worker Suicide Prevention Bill into Law. 
Earlier this month, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek signed a bill that creates a new suicide prevention hotline for agricultural producers and workers into law. Senate Bill 955 (“SB 955”) provides $300,000 to establish an endowment to fund an AgriStress Helpline in Oregon. Proponents of the bill believe the AgriStress Helpline will be able to specifically address the needs of agricultural producers and workers which “[s]tatistically . . . have one of the highest suicide rates of any occupation.” Oregon becomes the 7th state to establish an AgriStress Hotline joining Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming.