Sunday, December 12, 2021
In recent years, almost every state has enacted an Equine Activity Liability Act or a comparable provision 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.
State laws providing potential legal protection from injuries associated with horse-related activities – it’s the topic of today’s post.
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.”
Kansas law provides liability protection for equine professionals and equine activity sponsors under the state’s “domesticated animal activity” act. K.S.A. §§60-4001 – 60-4003. Under the law, such professionals and sponsors are not liable for injuries incurred by a participant in a domesticated animal activity resulting from inherent risks unless the participant was provided with faulty equipment or tack, and the equipment or tack was what caused the participant’s injury. Also, liability can apply if a horse was provided without reasonable efforts made to determine the participant’s ability to manage the horse based on what the participant disclosed concerning the ability to engage in the equine activity at issue. K.S.A. §§60-4003(a)(1)(A)-(B). The equine professional or equine activity sponsor can also lose liability protection by not disclosing dangers a participant is not likely to discover; fails to act reasonably; or willfully, wantonly or intentionally disregards the participant’s safety. K.S.A. §§60-4003(2)-(4).
Kansas law also requires the posting of warning signs in conspicuous places where equine activities are conducted. The sign lettering is to be in black with each letter having a minimum of one inch in height. State law prescribes the language for the signage that warns the participant in a domestic animal activity that the participant is assuming the inherent risks of the activity.
Iowa. The various state statutes are all unique and fact issues abound. That means that cases involving a state’s law often end up before juries to decide those fact issues. One interpretation of the Iowa statute resulted 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).
Wyoming and Texas. 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, 341 S.W.3d 352 (Tex. 2011).
Ohio. The Ohio equine activities immunity statute has been held to bar recovery for an injury incurred by an employee of a stable when the employee assisted a customer in the unloading of 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. But this trial court decision was reversed on appeal with the court determining that the assisting of the customer did not amount to engaging in an equine activity as a participant. That meant that the customer was not entitled to immunity. On further review, the State Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the employee was an equine activity participant. Smith v. Landfair, 135 Ohio St. 3d 89 (Ohio 2012). However, the State Supreme Court remanded the case for clarification of the application of the statute given the State Supreme Court’s ruling. On remand, the appellate court held that the customer was an equine activity participant that was entitled to immunity because the legislature didn’t intend for an equine activity participant to suddenly become liable when a horse acts in an unpredictable manner during a brief instance of loss of control. Smith v. Landfair, 2014 Ohio 3314 (Ohio Ct. App. 2014).
Florida. In Germer v. Churchill Downs Management, 201 So. 3d 721 (Fla. Ct. App. 2016), the plaintiff, a former jockey, visited a horse racecourse 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.
Missouri. In Rosales v. Benjamin Equestrian Center, LLC, 597 S.W.3d 669 (Mo. Ct. App. 2019), the plaintiff attended a horse racing event at the defendant’s racetrack. She had never been to a horserace before and wasn’t experienced with horses. Upon arriving at the track, she entered the area where the horses were being unloaded. The gate she entered was an unmonitored open gate, and the track was in a large field or open area. The plaintiff was seated a short distance from where the horses were unloaded, and a horse handler asked her to move while a horse was being unloaded. The horse was unloaded and was being brushed when it reared up and fell on the plaintiff, fracturing her pelvis. She sued on a negligence theory and the trial court jury found in her favor for $350,000. That award was reduced by the comparative fault of the parties to $280,000. On appeal, the appellate court held that the Missouri Equine Activities Liability Act (Mo. Rev. Stat. §537.325.4) did not immunize the defendant because it negligently permitted people to access and remain in the horse unloading area, near an inherent risk that, as a result, enhanced that inherent risk. While the defendant complied with the statutory signage requirement, the appellate court held that was not required as a condition of asserting immunity.
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 statute that provides potential immunity for such activities.