Monday, June 15, 2020
In recent years, all states except California and Maryland (and New York, to some extent) have enacted Equine Activity Liability Acts designed to encourage the continued existence of equine-related activities, facilities and programs, and provide the equine industry limited protection against lawsuits. The laws vary from state-to-state, but generally require special language in written contracts and liability releases or waivers; require the posting of warning signs; an attempt to educate the public about inherent risks in horse-related activities; and provide immunities designed to limit liability. The basic idea of these laws is to provide a legal framework to incentivize horse-related activities by creating liability protection for horse owners and event operators.
An important question is whether the laws extend to farm animals and persons working on farms and ranches.
Liability rules involving horses, farm animals and associated events – it’s the topic of today’s post.
State Law Variations
Under the typical statute, an “equine activity sponsor,” “equine professional,” or other person can only be sued in tort for damages related to the knowing 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. For example, in Germer v. Churchill Downs Management, No. 3D14-2695, 2016 Fla. App. LEXIS 13398 (Fla. Ct. Ap. Sept. 7, 2016), state law “immunized” (among other things) an equine activity sponsor from liability to a “participant” from the inherent risks of equine activities. The plaintiff, a former jockey visited a racecourse that the defendant managed. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but he was required to get a guest pass to enter the stables. He was injured by a horse in the stables and the court upheld the immunity provisions of the statute on the basis that the requirement to get a guest pass before entering the stables was sufficient protocol to amount to “organization” which made the plaintiff’s visit to the stables “an organized activity” under the statute.
While many state equine activity laws require the postage of warning signs and liability waivers, not every state does. For example, the statutes in CT, HI, ID, MT, NH, ND, UT, WA and WY require neither signage nor particular contract language.
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.” For example, in Snider v. Fort Madison Rodeo Corp., No. 1-669/00-2065, 2002 Iowa App. LEXIS 327 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 20, 2002), the plaintiff sued a parade sponsor and a pony owner for injuries sustained in crossing the street during a parade. The court determined that the omission of a lead rope was not reckless conduct and that the plaintiff assumed the risk of crossing the street during the parade. Similarly, in Markowitz v. Bainbridge Equestrian Center, Inc., No. 2006-P-0016, 2007 Ohio App. LEXIS 1411 (Ohio Ct. App. Mar. 30, 2007), the court held that there was no evidence present that the plaintiff’s injuries sustained in the fall from a horse was a result of the defendant’s willful or wanton conduct or reckless indifference. In addition, the signed liability release form complied with statutory requirements. However, in Teles v. Big Rock Stables, L.P., 419 F. Supp. 2d 1003 (E.D. Tenn. 2006), the provision of a saddle with stirrups that could not be shortened enough to reach plaintiff’s feet which then caused the plaintiff to fall from a horse raised jury question as to whether faulty tack provided, whether the fall was the result of the inherent risk of horseback riding, and whether the defendant’s conduct was willful or grossly negligent and, thus, not covered by the signed liability release form.
What constitutes an “inherent risk” from horse riding is a fact issue in many states due to the lack of any precise definition of “inherent risk” in the particular state statute. For example, under the Texas Equine Activity Liability Act, the phrase “inherent risk of equine activity” refers to risks associated with the activity rather than simply those risks associated with innate animal behavior. See, e.g., 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). Also, in Einhorn v. Johnson, et al., No. 50A03-1303-CT-93, 2013 Ind. App. LEXIS 495 (Ind. Ct. App. Oct. 10, 2013), the Indiana Equine Activity Act barred a negligence action after a volunteer at a county fair was injured by a horse. The plaintiff’s injuries were determined to result from the inherent risk of equine activities. Likewise, in Holcomb v. Long, No. A14A0815, 2014 Ga. App. LEXIS 726 (Ga. Ct. App. Nov. 10, 2014), the Georgia Equine Activities Act barred recovery for injuries sustained as a result of slipping saddle during horseback ride; slipping saddle inherent risk of horseback riding. See also, Fishman v. GRBR, Inc., No. DA 17-0214, 2017 Mont. LEXIS 602 (Mont. Sup. Ct. Oct. 5, 2017).
Application to Farm Animals
Iowa and Texas amended their existing laws in 2011 to include farm animals. The Iowa provision, known as the “Domesticated Animal Activities Act” (Iowa Code §§673.1-673.3) was amended due to a state Supreme Court decision. The Texas “Farm Animal Act” is an expanded revision to that state’s Equine Activity Act.
Iowa. The Iowa law was enacted in 1997 and amended in 2011 as a result of a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision, Baker v. Shields, 767 N.W.2d 404 (Iowa 2009). Under the facts of the case, a farmhand suffered a severe leg fracture in a fall from a horse during an attempt to move his employer’s cattle. What was assumed to be the employer’s horse was a two-year old that the farmhand had successful ridden a few days earlier. The farmhand sued his employer (a father and son duo) to recover for his damages, claiming that because his employer did not carry workers’ compensation insurance as the plaintiff claimed Iowa law required, he was entitled to a presumption that his injury was the direct result of the employer’s negligence and that the negligence was the proximate cause of his injury.
The employer moved for summary judgment based on the immunity granted in the Domesticated Animal Activities Act (Act). Based on the language of the statute and the history behind enactment in most of the states with equine liability laws, the employer’s claim of immunity under the Act looked to be a long-shot. However, the trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, finding that a horse is a “domesticated animal,” riding a horse is a “domesticated animal activity,” and the horse’s actions were an inherent risk of that activity. More importantly, the trial court noted that the statute provided that a “person” is not liable under the Act and reasoned that “person” should be broadly construed to include employer/employee settings involving the use of livestock – such as the employer’s horse in this case. The trial court also noted that the Act defined “participant” as “a person who engages in a domesticated animal activity, regardless of whether the person receives compensation” and reasoned that this indicated application to employment situations.
The Supreme Court affirmed based on its belief that the Iowa legislature intended the statute to apply broadly to all “persons” and that the statutory definitions of “domesticated animal activity sponsor” and “domesticated animal event” did not preclude ag employment situations involving domesticated livestock (although the “sponsors” and “activities” listed in the statute have nothing to do with common ag employment situations).
At trial, and again at the Supreme Court, the farm hand argued that the Act did not specifically exempt farming operations as a “domesticated animal activity sponsor” and, as such, only applied to activities involving participation of members of the general public (as “spectators” in or “participants” of activities involving domesticated animals) and not “traditional farming operations done by employees.” However, the Iowa Supreme Court agreeing with the trial court, determined that the Act applied, and that the employer was immunized from suit. The Court’s opinion was a stretch (to say the least) of the intent and meaning of the Act’s language. At the time, the Court’s decision was the first court opinion to hold that a state equine activity (or domestic animal activity) liability act applied to common agricultural employment situations with the effect of immunizing the employer from suit from damages arising from inherent risks associated with the subject animal. In 2011, the Iowa legislature amended the statute to include domestic animals.
Texas. In 1995, Texas enacted the Equine Activity Act (Equine Act). Ch. 87 of Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code. The Equine Act provided that “any person, including an equine activity sponsor or an equine professional, is not liable for property damage or damages arising from the personal injury or death of a participant…[that] results from the dangers or conditions that are an inherent risk of equine activity.” An equine activity sponsor is “a person or group who sponsors, organizes, or provides the facilities for an equine activity…without regard to whether the person operates for profit.” The statute provides many examples demonstrating the specific application of the Equine Act and its concern for equine activities unrelated to ranching activities such as breeding, feeding and working equine animals as a vocation. None of the examples hinted at any application to ranchers’ and ranch hands’ involvement with horses.
In 2011, the Texas legislature amended the Equine Act. The amendment renamed the law as the “Farm Animal Activity Act” and broadened coverage to include other farm animals in addition to equines. Veterinarians and livestock shows were also included under its coverage, and the words “handling, loading, or unloading” were added to the definition of “farm animal activity.” The Farm Animal Activity Act limits the liability of “any person, including a farm animal activity sponsor [or] farm animal professional,” but also includes examples of a person whose liability is limited that is demonstrated to be event organizers and facility providers with “professionals” defined as trainers and equipment renters. All of the livestock examples relate to shows, rides, exhibitions, competitions and similar events. The Farm Animal Act limits liability to or for a “participant.” A “participant is defined as “a person who engage in [a farm animal] activity without regard to whether the person is an amateur or professional or whether the person pays for the activity or participates in the activity for free.
In Waak v. Rodriguez, No. 19-0167, 2020 Tex. LEXIS 528 (Tex. Sup. Ct. Jun. 12, 2020), ranch owners (a married couple) bred Charolais cattle on their 760-acre ranch in southeast Texas. They hired an individual (Raul Zuniga) on a part-time basis to work the cattle, do landscaping and cut hay. Raul later started working full-time for them and lived on the ranch in a mobile home that he was purchasing from them. After training him how to work and cut cattle, Raul was given daily tasks and often worked cattle alone. In late 2013, the couple asked Raul to moved cattle to another location on the ranch, a task he had done often in the past. The couple then went left to run errands in town about 20 miles away. Upon their return to the ranch, the owners found Raul lying dead behind the barn. A medical examiner determined that Raul’s cause of death at (almost) age 34 was “blunt force and crush injuries” that were “severe enough to have come from extensive force like that of a large animal trampling the body.” His surviving parents and children sued the ranch owners for wrongful death. They did not participate in the Texas workers’ compensation system. The lawsuit claimed that a bull killed Raul and that the owners were negligent in failing to provide a safe workplace; failing to properly train Raul; and failing to warn of the dangers of working cattle and failing to properly supervise him. The owners claimed that the Farm Animal Activity Act barred the lawsuit, and the trial court agreed. The appellate court reversed, however.
On further review, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision – the Farm Animal Activity Act did not apply, and the suit was not barred. The Court noted that the text and examples contained the legislation did not make any reference to ranchers or ranch hands or otherwise indicate that they were covered. The Court also indicated its belief that no reported decision anywhere in the country applied an equine statute to farming or ranching or limit an employee’s recovery for on-the-job injuries. The ranch owners’ attorneys failed to bring the Iowa case to the Court’s attention (the owners’ attorneys were civil litigators from a big-city firm and not rural ag lawyers). The Court also noted that while the legislature had broadened the statute in 2011 and renamed it, it still limited liability protection to event organizers and facilities providers as well as professional trainers and equipment renters. All of the livestock examples in the amended statute still were in the context of “shows.” Ranch hands, the Court noted, do not work as “amateurs” or “professionals” and do not pay to do their work and don’t typically work for free. Ranch hands are not “participants.”
State Equine Activity Liability laws are designed to provide liability protection for injuries arising from horse-related activities. The Iowa and Texas provisions have been modified to include farm animals. It would have been interesting had the ranch owners in the Texas case brought the Iowa case to the Texas Supreme Court’s attention. While doing so may not have resulted in a different outcome, the Court would have been forced to deal with it.