According to various different wedding websites, approximately 15 to 20 percent of couples are choosing to hold rustic wedding ceremonies and receptions at a barn, farm, or ranch.
While many attorneys practicing personal injury law may have come across a premises liability claim regarding a fall that occurred at a wedding, the agricultural tourism immunity statute, Wis. Stat. section 895.524, adds an interesting layer to an injury claim that occurred at a barn or farm wedding.
I represented a woman who was injured in a fall at a wedding reception held on a farm in a barn. The wedding ceremony took place in a field. Guests were transported to the ceremony on a hay wagon. After the ceremony, the guests were transported on the hay wagon back to the barn where the reception meal was served followed by dancing and drinks.
As a guest at the wedding, attendees were permitted to visit the animals on the farm. It rained during this particular wedding ceremony. After my client was transported back to the barn, she left with her husband to go home and change before returning to the farm for the reception in the barn.
After her meal, my client fell while walking to the bar to get a drink, and sustained significant injuries.
As always, the true liability facts are more complex, but for the purpose of this blog we will focus on the agricultural tourism immunity statute: Section 895.524 went into effect April 2014, and there are no known appellate decisions to date that interpret this statute.
This specialized immunity statute provides immunity as follows:
(2) Immunity from liability. (a) Subject to par. (b), an agricultural tourism provider is immune from civil liability for injury to or the death of an individual who is participating in an agricultural tourism activity on property owned, leased, or managed by the agricultural tourism provider if all of the following apply:
- The participant is injured or killed as a result of a risk inherent in an agricultural tourism activity.
- The agricultural tourism provider posts and maintains, in a clearly visible location at each entrance to the property where the agricultural tourism activity takes place or at the location of each agricultural tourism activity, a sign that contains the following notice in black lettering, each letter a minimum of 1 inch in height, on a white background: “Notice: A person who observes or participates in an agricultural tourism activity on this property assumes the risks inherent in the agricultural tourism activity. Risks inherent in the agricultural tourism activity may include conditions on the land, the unpredictable behavior of farm animals, the ordinary dangers associated with equipment used in farming operations, and the potential that a participant in the agricultural tourism activity may act in a negligent way that may contribute to injury or death. The agricultural tourism provider is not liable for the injury or death of a person involved in an agricultural tourism activity resulting from those inherent risks.
In addition, an “agricultural tourism activity,” is defined in section 895.524(1)(a) as:
Agricultural tourism activity” means an educational or recreational activity that takes place on a farm, ranch, grove, or other place where agricultural, horticultural, or silvicultural crops are grown or farm animals or farmed fish are raised, and that allows members of the general public, whether or not for a fee, to tour, explore, observe, learn about, participate in, or be entertained by an aspect of agricultural production, harvesting, or husbandry that occurs on the farm, ranch, grove, or other place.
Is Attending a Wedding an Agricultural Tourism Activity?
In bringing this action, I expected and was not surprised when the farm wedding venue raised agricultural tourism immunity in their answer. The defense moved for summary judgment on this issue.
In response, the plaintiff emphasized that she fell while attending a wedding reception at the barn. She did not get kicked by a cow, bitten by a goat, or trip on a rut while visiting piglets. The plaintiff argued that in attending a wedding reception, she was not participating or touring any element of agricultural production, harvesting, or husbandry. Guests were permitted to experience those aspects of the farm, but my plaintiff did not participate in those activities. She was not engaged in any agricultural activity at the time she fell other than the fact she was physically inside a barn used to host a wedding.
Further, the plaintiff argued this was not an event open to the general public. I have personally been at this farm with my children on a Saturday. The farm closes to the general public in the early evening and only wedding guests are allowed after that point.
Does the Agricultural Tourism Immunity Statute Provide Any Immunity?
In addition to the arguments surrounding the definition of an agricultural tourism activity, the plaintiff further argued that there was no immunity for the farm wedding venue, as she alleged the facility failed to exercise ordinary care.
This immunity statute provides an exception to immunity for tortfeasors that act with “willful or wonton disregard,” but defines that as follows:
(b) 1. Subject to subd. 2., an agricultural tourism provider is not immune from civil liability for injury to or the death of a participant if any of the following applies:
- The agricultural tourism provider acts with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant. In this subd. 1.a., “willful or wanton disregard” means conduct committed with an intentional or reckless disregard for the safety of others, such as by failing to exercise ordinary care to prevent a known danger or to discover a danger.
The failure to exercise ordinary care is a negligence standard, but in this section, is by definition willful or wanton disregard for safety.
In oral arguments for summary judgment, the court was much more interested in discussion of the factual circumstances and whether attending a wedding constituted an agricultural tourism activity. The judge pondered whether he has a choice to attend a wedding, implying that it may be more of an obligation and as such, the guest is not choosing the location to enjoy the agricultural atmosphere. The court also seemed to be convinced that a wedding is not an event open to the public.
The defense has agreed to write a blog post next month, presenting the other side of the argument. Stay tuned for the final decision!
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Litigation Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Litigation Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.