Equine Activity Liability Statutes
Equine Activity Liability Statutes (“EALS”) provide the horse industry with a great deal of protection. Overall, the statutes limit participants’ ability to seek damages from horse people for injuries related to the participants’ involvement with horses. Not only will horse people benefit from the legal protection afforded by the statutes, but insurance rates will likely decrease as a result of this limitation on liability. In this article, I will give you an overview of the statutes, interpret them and identify inherent risks.
The 1990s witnessed a revolution in the laws regarding liability of horsemen for equine-related injuries. Over the 1990’s and early twenty-first century, America witnessed a change in the outlook of equine activities to the public. This began with the creation of the Equine Activity Liability Statute (AEALS@). As of January 2010, 46 states have enacted some form of EALS. Only California, Maryland, Nevada, and New York have yet to enact these valuable statutes. State legislatures created these laws in order to limit the liability of equine professionals and activity sponsors from participant injuries resulting from the Ainherent risks@ of equine activities.
The Purpose of the EALS
The EALS were first created in response to astronomical legal expenses and court verdicts for those involved in the horse industry. Realizing that the horse industry was suffering, many states= legislatures began enacting their EALS.
While the states do not intend for the statutes to prevent justifiable lawsuits for injuries sustained through someone=s direct negligence, they do seek to reduce the number of frivolous or meritless lawsuits. Horsepeople must recognize, however, that the equine activity liability statutes do not protect them from all legal exposure resulting from interaction with horses. Further, the presence of an equine activity liability statute in your state does not enable you to safely cancel your liability insurance.
How the EALS Helps Horsepeople
The statutes do indeed assist horsepeople in defending against a frivolous lawsuit in court, as they make it harder for the injured party to establish liability. With the assistance of the statute, cases are often thrown out by judges early in the legal process. In addition, the statutes prevent many cases from ever reaching the courthouse in the first place. Before accepting a case, attorneys analyze the potential chances of winning the case in court. If a potential defendant=s liability cannot be established under the statute, most attorneys will not accept the case.
The Warning and Posting Requirements
Most states have statutes which state something similar to the following:
An equine activity sponsor, an equine professional or any other person or corporation, shall not be liable for an injury to or the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities, and with some exceptions, no participant shall make any claim against, maintain an action against, or recover from any equine activity sponsor, any equine professional, or any other person for injury, loss, damage or death of the participant resulting from any of the inherent risks of equine activities.
Some states require that, in order to take advantage of the benefits of the statute, equine activity sponsors and equine professionals must post warning signs and include the statutory warning statement in any equine contract they utilize. Failure to follow the statutory requirements of your state=s equine activity liability statute precludes protection under the statutes. Each state is different, so be sure to check with an attorney regarding the particular compliance requirements in your state=s statute to ensure you comply with the requirements.
As a general rule, someone who provides services to others does not owe a specific duty to its consumers from injuries relating to the inherent risks of participating in that activity. This is called the “assumption of risk” doctrine. Basically, you assume the risk of the inherent dangers of participating in the activity. The EALS codifies the assumption of risk doctrine, making it clear that participants assume the risk of injuries related to the inherent dangers of interacting with horses. These statutes are critical, as they often give judges excellent guidance as to the proper standard to apply. This proves essential, as most judges do not have much, if any, experience with horses. An EALS can often provide the judges with critical information regarding the horse industry and dangers of interacting with horses.
Interpreting the Statutes
One of the most difficult parts of understanding an EALS is the terminology contained in each statute. To make things even more difficult, each EALS is different. While many state EALS have similarities, the differences often have tremendous impact on the effect of the statute.
The typical EALS has four parts:
- The definitions
- Limitation of liability
- Exceptions to limitation of liability
- Posting/warning requirements
Each of these sections of your state’s EALS requires a detailed review and understanding. This section of the article will review the definitions portion of the statutes.
- Equine — Most statutes go to the extent of defining what type of animals the statute covers. Generally, an “equine” means a horse, pony, mule, donkey or hinny.
- Equine Activities — The typical EALS has broad definitions of equine activities. The goal of most statutes is to include most activities involving horses, including:
– Shows, fairs, performances, parades
– All breeds and disciplines
– Equine training, lessons and coaching activities
– Boarding horses
– Riding, inspecting or evaluating a horse belonging to another
– Informal horse activities, such as rides, trips or hunts
– Breeding activities
– Horse shoeing activities
Most statutes do not discriminate between activities engaged in for compensation or free of charge. Thus, most statutes will protect the provider of horses who do not charge a fee.
Importantly, however, there are some horse activities that are specifically excluded from protection. Most importantly, horse people are not protected by the statutes when a spectator suffers an injury. As an underlying premise for such position, most states determine that spectators have not consented to the risk of interacting with horses, and therefore should not be subject to the limitation of liability from an EALS. Additionally, most statutes exclude horse racing from protection.
- Equine Professional / Equine Activity Sponsor — An equine professional provides services to participants for compensation. Such services include:
– Renting horses
– Renting tack or equipment
– Providing daily care to horses
– Training a horse
– Breeding horses for resale or profit
It is important to note that, while most statutes define equine professionals as those who engage in horse activities for profit, those same statutes make it clear that the statutes protect all people engaging in horse activities. This is true even if the person does not receive compensation for the activity.
The equine activity sponsor includes most types of groups or clubs who sponsor equine activities. This would include clubs or individuals who put on horse shows, clinics and other similar events. This definition also includes the stable, fair or arena where the activity is held. The following, taken from the Michigan EALS, is a typical definition of an equine activity sponsor:
“Equine activity sponsor” means an individual, group, club, partnership, or corporation, whether or not operating for profit, that sponsors, organizes, or provides the facilities for an equine activity, including, but not limited to, a pony club; 4-H club; hunt club; riding club; school- or college-sponsored class, program, or activity; therapeutic riding program; stable or farm owner; and operator, instructor, or promoter of an equine facility including, but not limited to, a stable, clubhouse, pony ride string, fair, or arena at which the equine activity is held.
- Participant — The typical EALS also defines participant very generally, with the intent to include all types of participants in horse activities. A participant is defined as someone who participates in an “equine activity,” as defined above. It does not matter if the person paid for the activity or participates in the activity for free. Additionally, it does not matter if the participant is a professional or amateur. A participant will often be read broadly, to include most people that are at a farm participating in horse activities. It should be noted that spectators will not generally be included in the participant definition. This definition does see a wide variety of inclusions depending upon each statute. You should be sure to check your state’s EALS to identify who would be considered a participant under your law.
- Engages in an Equine Activity — To bring all of the definitions together, most statutes define what constitutes engaging in an equine activity. A typical statute includes the following:
“Engages in an equine activity” means riding, handling, training, driving, assisting in the medical treatment of, being a passenger on, or assisting a participant or sponsor with an equine animal. The term includes management of a show involving equine animals. The term does not include being a spectator at an equine activity unless the spectator is in an unauthorized area and in immediate proximity to the equine activity.
This definition is particularly important, as most EALS state that equine professionals, equine activity sponsors or any other person will not be responsible for injuries relating to the inherent risks associated with “engaging in an equine activity.” Clearly, understanding these terms are critical to understanding your EALS.
Identifying Inherent Risks
Equine activity liability acts protect horsepeople from the Ainherent risks@ of equine activities, recognizing that participants should recognize and assume these inherent risks. Inherent risks are those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of equine activities. In other words, inherent risks are the risks beyond the control of the equine professional or activity sponsor. One of the most litigated issues surrounding the EALS includes interpretation of the term “inherent risk.” This section will provide a definition of inherent risk and inform you of the recent court decisions addressing inherent risks of equine activities.
Why Inherent Risks Enjoy Protection
Interacting with horses undoubtedly carries some inherent risks for the handler or rider. Horses could stumble on a rough path, rear unexpectedly, or simply take off for no apparent reason. While prudent horse providers and professionals will attempt to use horses which will behave under all circumstances, horse are unpredictable animals, and unusual things can startle or scare them. Many situations, however, should not be included as an inherent risk. For example, providing an energetic, high-strung horse for a beginning rider would create a risk which should not and will not enjoy protection under the EALS.
The Need to Understand Inherent Risk
Understanding the term inherent risk becomes important once you understand the EALS. While states have varying language in their EALS, most provide protection to equine professionals or providers for injuries related to the inherent risks associated with horses. A sample provision states:
An equine activity sponsor, an equine professional or any other person or corporation, shall not be liable for an injury to or the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities and . . . no participant or a participant’s representative shall make any claim against, maintain an action against, or recover from an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or any other person from injury, loss, damage or death of the participant resulting from any of the inherent risks of equine activities. Missouri Statute § 537.325.2.
In order to actually understand the protection afforded equine professionals and other horse people, you must understand what types of activities are actually protected. Additionally, it is important to understand what types of activities are not protected, so those activities can be avoided or made safer.
Most states’ EALS provide a list or summary of items which are included as inherent risks. Generally, states define inherent risks as those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of equine activities. Understanding that such a definition will give little direction to those trying to understand the EALS, some states identify specific examples of inherent risks, which include:
- The propensity of a horse to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm or death to persons around or on it.
- The unpredictability of any horse’s reaction to such things as sounds, sudden movement and unfamiliar objects, persons or other animals.
- Certain hazards such as surface or subsurface conditions.
- Collisions with other horses or objects.
- Actions of other participants, including negligence, which may contribute to injury to the participant or others, such as failing to maintain control over the animal or not acting within his or her ability.
Not Inherent Risks
Where the statute identifies what the EALS includes as an inherent risk, they also generally include items which are specifically excluded from protection. Thus, the statutes do NOT protect from liability when the participant suffers injury due to the following activities of the provider:
- Injuries caused by faulty tack or equipment, where the provider knew or should have known the tack or equipment was faulty.
- Mismatching horse to rider.
- Failure to warn of dangerous latent (non-obvious) conditions, of which the provider knew.
- Intentional injuries.
- Gross negligence – acts or omissions constituting willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant.
Many states differ on the way it handles general negligence. Often times the issue of responsibility for general negligence goes without attention. In other states, it specifically addresses the issue of negligence. The safest approach is to assume that negligence is not protected by your state’s EALS, and such activities should, of course, be avoided.
Mismatching Horse to Rider
Mismatching horse to rider provides the most common area of liability for horse providers. Most statutes contain provisions which exclude protection under the EALS when a provider fails to properly match horse to rider. Undoubtedly, if a rider suffers an injury with a horse you provided, you must be ready to justify your horse selection for the injured rider.
Several courts have interpreted this issue, and found that the horse provider must adequately evaluate the rider’s ability prior to placing the rider on or around the horse. Many well-run programs have questionnaires that the riders fill out prior to riding, in order for the provider to properly evaluate the rider’s ability. The questionnaire should contain several key questions, including the number of times riding a horse, type of riding, and identification of any physical or mental impairments which impact the participant’s ability to ride the horse.
Courts have also ruled that the providers have an on-going duty to evaluate the rider’s ability. This means that the provider/instructor must constantly evaluate the rider’s safety and ability to handle the horse they ride. Thus, if, at any time during a lesson, the provider determines the rider’s safety is in jeopardy, the provider should discontinue the lesson or ride. If an injury occurs after the provider becomes aware of the danger, the EALS will no longer protect the provider.
Most states have enacted Equine Activity Liability Statues, with the goal of eliminating liability to horse providers related to the unavoidable or inherent risks. However, the EALS do not protect horse providers from all legal exposure resulting from interaction with horses. Most states have statutes have warning and posting requirements. Check the notice requirements of your state’s statute, and post the warning signs so they are easily seen by all entering the barn. Interaction with horses carries with it certain inherent risks. Prudent horse professionals or providers should know what is included as an inherent risk. More importantly, informed horse professionals and providers will familiarize themselves with actions NOT considered inherent risks.
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8 September, 2002. All rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted nor reproduced in any manner without prior written permission by the author.