State Wins Appeal, Safety Case Reopened in Amish Farm Death

A mid-Michigan organic dairy farm is fighting state safety regulators, five years after a 19-year-old family member was fatally electrocuted while removing a metal pole from a grain bin.

The dispute involves the state’s scrutiny of small farms, the traditions of an Amish family and whether Alvin Yoder should be considered an employee when he was accidentally killed.

In 2017, the state’s workplace safety agency, known as MIOSHA, issued four violations and proposed a $16,100 fine against Yoder Family Farm, near Clare. The farm subsequently won key decisions dismissing the case, but regulators haven’t given up.

The Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 opinion, sent the case back to a state board last week for more work. Judge David Sawyer disagreed, saying the family has experienced enough.

“The Yoders simply want to operate their family farm, live together as a family and practice their faith with as little interference from the outside world as possible,” Sawyer said. “We should honor that desire by recognizing that the law does not give MIOSHA the authority to intrude onto the family farm.”

Yoder wasn’t paid a wage for working on the farm but received food, clothing and a place to live, a traditional arrangement in Amish families.

Ingham County Judge Clint Canady III said Yoder didn’t have an employee-employer relationship with his parents. As a result, he said, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration had no authority to step in.

But the appeals court said Yoder’s benefits were “wages in another form.”

The court directed the Board of Health and Safety Compliance and Appeals to take a fresh look. It must apply an “economic reality test” that includes factors such as control of a worker’s duties and discipline to determine Yoder’s employment status with parents John and Eva May Yoder.

“We sympathize with the Yoders’ loss of their son,” said judges Elizabeth Gleicher and Kristina Robinson Garrett. “The regulations promulgated and enforced by MIOSHA are designed to prevent such tragedies.”