Nebraska farm, ranch tourism liability bill advances

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Farmers and ranchers who open their property to tourists could be shielded from certain lawsuits under a bill advancing by Nebraska lawmakers on Thursday.

Senators gave the proposal first-round approval with a 33-1 vote. Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said he introduced it to promote rural tourism and give farmers and ranchers another potential revenue source without the fear of lawsuits.

“Offering more access would provide more value not only to landowners, but also to the local communities that would see tourism and business increase,” Schilz said.

The bill is aimed at sites such as working farms and ranches, hiking trails, lakes and hunting and bird-watching areas. It also could apply to hayrack or boat rides, vineyard tours and haunted houses.

A 2012 Nebraska Tourism Commission report found that liability and insurance concerns were a major roadblock to the tourism industry’s growth in the state.

Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis said he and his wife ran a guest ranch in the early 1990s with horseback rides, hunting, jeep tours and sailboat excursions. But Davis said the business was too small to justify the cost of liability insurance.

“We essentially just winged it,” Davis said. “Of course, that was a foolish thing to do and a risky thing to do. We were fortunate not to have any injuries.”

Schilz said the bill would not allow property owners to be careless.

Landowners would only be protected if an injury was caused by an “inherent risk” of the land, unless the owner knew or should have known of a danger and failed to disclose it. Landowners could also be liable if they fail to adequately train and supervise a visitor on their property or inspect equipment that’s used.

“This is not, nor will it be, a free-for-all when it comes to landowners,” Schilz said.

Several lawmakers expressed skepticism. Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln questioned whether the bill was strong enough to ensure a farm-tourism site is as safe as possible for young children.

“Is the average soccer mom going to know that she should be paying attention to rust on equipment?” Bolz said. “Will she even know the right questions to ask?”

Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln said he was concerned that the bill would shut out legitimate legal claims.

“There are going to be victims with injuries who don’t get their day in court,” Hansen said.

The bill has won support from farming, ranch and tourism groups and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, but drew criticism from the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys.

Similar bills have stalled in the past amid opposition from trial attorneys and the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. This year, the bill was sent to the Natural Resources Committee. Schilz is the committee’s chairman.

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