Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Scope and Effect of Equine Liability Acts

In recent years, almost every state has enacted an Equine Activity Liability Act (ELA) designed to encourage the continued existence of equine-related activities, facilities and programs, and provide the equine industry limited protection against lawsuits. The laws generally require special language in written contracts and liability releases or waivers, require the posting of warning signs and attempt to educate the public about inherent risks in horse-related activities and immunities designed to limit liability.  Under the typical statute, an “equine activity sponsor,” “equine professional,” or other person can only be sued in tort for damages related to the provision of faulty tack, failure to determine the plaintiff’s ability to safely manage a horse, or failure to post warning signs concerning dangerous latent conditions.  Recovery for damages resulting from inherent risks associated with horses is barred, and some state statutes require the plaintiff to establish that the defendant’s conduct constituted “gross negligence,” “willful and wanton misconduct,” or “intentional wrongdoing.”

The various state statutes are all unique and fact issues abound.  That means that cases involving a state’s ELA often end up before juries to decide those fact issues.  One interpretation of the Iowa statute resulting in the term “person” in the Iowa Domesticated Animal Activities Act being construed to include an employer in an agricultural employment setting involving livestock.  Baker v. Shields, 767 N.W.2d 404 (Iowa 2009).  Another common issue involves determining what an inherent risk of horseback riding amounts to.  In Wyoming, that is a fact issue because the statute doesn’t provide any precise definition as examples of inherent risks from riding horses.  Under the Texas statute, the phrase “inherent risk of equine activity” refers to risks associated with the activity rather than simply those risks associated with innate animal behavior.  Loftin v. Lee, No. 09-0313, 2011 Tex. LEXIS 326 (Tex. Sup. Ct. Apr. 29, 2011).  The Ohio equine activities immunity statute has been held to bar recovery for an injury incurred while assisting an employer unload a horse from a trailer during a day off, because the person deliberately exposed themselves to an inherent risk associated with horses and viewed the activity as a spectator.  Smith v. Landfair, No. 2011-1708, 2012 Ohio LEXIS 3095 (Ohio Sup. Ct. Dec. 6, 2012). 

A recent case involved the construction of the Florida EALA.  The plaintiff, a former jockey, visited a horse race course that the defendant managed. The decision was a spur-of-the-moment decision made along with the plaintiff’s roommate who was a current jockey and had a horse stabled there. As a former jockey, the plaintiff was required to get a guest pass to enter the stables. While walking through the barn to see the roommate’s horse, another horse jumped out of its stall and bit the plaintiff’s chest. The plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence. The defendant asserted immunity based on the state (FL) Equine Activities Liability Act (EALA) on the basis that the plaintiff was a “participant engaged in an equine activity” that was precluded from recovering damages. The EALA immunizes an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or any other person or entity from liability to a “participant” from the inherent risks of equine activities. A “participant” need not pay a fee, and engaging in an equine activity includes “visiting or touring…an equine facility as part of an organized event or activity.” The plaintiff claimed that the decision to visit the stables was simply a spur-of-the-moment decision that did not constitute an organized event or activity, the court disagreed. The court focused on the requirement that the plaintiff obtain a guest pass before entering the horse barn. That was sufficient enough of a protocol to amount to “organization” which made the plaintiff’s visit to the stables “an organized activity” under the EALA.

If you have horses, engage is horse-related activities, or attend horse events for pleasure, you might want to become familiar with the governing state EALA.

The Florida case is Germer v. Churchill Downs Management, No. 3D14-2695, 2016 Fla. App. LEXIS 13398 (Fla. Ct. App. Sept. 7, 2016).

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