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Nebraska Supreme Court: Farmers not liable for fatal crash where tall corn obstructed view

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LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday that a pair of Saunders County farmers were not liable for their 7-foot corn blocking the view at a rural intersection.

The ruling ended a lawsuit brought by Amanda Latzel, the widow of a man who was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident at the intersection.

Thomas Latzel's injuries led to his death three years after the Oct. 6, 2007, accident.

But the ruling marked a victory for agricultural interests. The Nebraska Agricultural Legal Foundation had filed a friend of the court brief supporting the farmers in the case.

According to the decision, Thomas Latzel had been a passenger in a pickup truck driven by Daniel Vanekelenburg.

The pickup was headed east on County Road T when it collided with a pickup truck driven by Patrick Gaughen, who was headed north on County Road 17.

The intersection of the two gravel roads was unmarked.

Testimony from all parties at the trial confirmed that both drivers' view of the intersection was partially blocked by a cornfield on the southwest corner.

Brothers Ronald and Doug Bartek owned the field in question. They had planted corn up to the ditch alongside the road and, at the time, the corn topped 7 feet.

Amanda Latzel had argued the Barteks were negligent under a state law that requires property owners to remove trees, shrubs and other plants that obstruct the view of drivers.

But Lancaster County District Court Judge Robert Otte dismissed her suit against the farmers, saying that the drivers' negligence caused the accident.

Otte said the state law did not apply because neither the State Department of Roads nor any local authority had notified the Barteks that their corn created a hazard.

Without that notice, a landowner cannot be held liable under that law, he said.

The state high court affirmed the dismissal of the case.

The court majority ruled that the farmers were not liable because either driver could have prevented the collision “by exercising reasonable care” when approaching and entering the intersection.

The Barteks “were not bound to anticipate that drivers would disregard the obvious danger of traversing a visually obstructed unmarked intersection without being able to see what they needed to see to do so safely,” the ruling said.

Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Stephan, in a minority opinion, argued even more strongly that the farmers could not be held liable for “simply making lawful use of their agricultural land to raise crops.

He was joined in that opinion by Chief Justice Michael Heavican and Judge William Connolly.

Eric Brown, the attorney for Amanda Latzel, said he was disappointed at the ruling. He said it continues a situation in which different standards are applied to urban landowners and farmers regarding plantings that block drivers' views.

“State and local officials in rural areas of this state simply ignore and refuse to enforce that statute when it comes to farmers,” he said.

“Unfortunately, too many folks are killed in unmarked rural intersection collisions, and we were hoping this lawsuit would lead to a change in practices to save lives,” Brown said.

Joel Bacon, an attorney for Ronald Bartek, said he was happy at the outcome. He said the case could have had far-reaching implications for farmers and landowners, if the Barteks had been found liable.

“The way they were growing corn is the way everyone else in Saunders County was growing corn,” he said.

Robert Shively, the attorney for Doug Bartek, said his client was pleased with the decision. “His heart goes out to the Latzel family for they've gone through,” Shively said.

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