Equine Activity Statutes – Part 1: Participants and Professionals
We’ve all seen the signs posted at private horse farms and public equestrian facilities stating:
WARNING – AN EQUINE ACTIVITY SPONSOR OR PROFESSIONAL SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR ANY INJURY TO OR THE DEATH OF A PARTICIPANT RESULTING FROM THE INHERENT RISK OF EQUINE ACTIVITIES.
Or some variation of that language, depending on your state.
For those of us who have read the statute in its entirety, you’ll know that these statutes typically go on to describe who an “equine activity sponsor” or “professional” is, what an “inherent risk” of equine activity is, and who is considered a “participant” for purposes of the statute. Typically, these statutes also include several exceptions to the immunity provided under the statute. circumstances where the equine professional or sponsor will not be afforded protection by the equine activity statute.
In most states, these statutes require that an equine activity sponsor/professional post the specific warning language in a conspicuous location at their facility and print the warning within any contract related to the equine services that the sponsor/professional provides. Failure to do so may render the equine professional unprotected by the statute.
Many horse owners, professionals, and riders alike incorrectly believe that as long as the warning sign is posted, the equine professional will be immune from a lawsuit in the event someone is injured at their farm or while riding their horse. Although the purpose of these statutes is to provide horse owners and professionals with protection from a lawsuit given the inherent dangers present while engaging in equine activities, the immunity is granted only when certain criteria is met.
Criteria for Immunity:
The defendant must be considered an “equine activity sponsor/professional”
The injured party must be considered a “participant”
The injured party must have been “engaged in an equine activity” when the injury occurred
The injury or death occurred from an “inherent risk” of equine activity
None of the exceptions to immunity are triggered
The equine sponsor/professional properly posted the warning and/or included the required language in their service agreement.
Who is an Equine Activity Sponsor or Professional?
Although not often litigated, a preliminary question that must be answered in the affirmative in order for an equine sponsor/professional to be afforded immunity under the statute is whether the defendant meets the definition of an equine activity sponsor or professional.
These statutes may vary widely across each state, but, typically, an equine activity sponsor is defined as:
An individual, group, club, partnership or corporation, which sponsors, organizes, or provides the facilities for an equine activity
An operator, instructor, and promotor of an equine facility at which the activity is held
Or a landowner who has given permission for the use of his land in an equine activity.
An equine activity professional is typically defined as, a person engaged for compensation in:
Instructing a participant
Renting an equine to a participant
Renting equipment or tack to a participant
Examining or administering medical treatment to an equine as a veterinarian
In one case, a rider was riding her horse in a city owned park where a dog owner was walking her dogs without a leash. The dogs began to chase the rider’s horse. The horse ran off and the rider was thrown against a tree with sufficient force to break her helmet. The rider suffered serious injuries and sued the dog owner.
The dog owner moved to dismiss the case claiming she was immune from liability under the state’s equine activity statute, claiming the rider’s injury was a result of an inherent risk of riding.
The court disagreed, explaining that because the dog owner did not meet the statutory definition of an “equine activity sponsor or professional”, she would not be afforded immunity by the equine activity statute.
Who is an Equine Activity Participant?
Even in situations where the defendant is considered an equine activity sponsor or professional, in order to invoke immunity by way of the equine activity statute, the injured party must be considered a “participant”. Subject to variations among states, an equine activity participant is typically defined as:
A person, amateur or professional, who engages in an equine activity, whether or not a fee is paid to participate in the equine activity.
Most statutes go on to define what “engaging in an equine activity” is. This usually involves: riding, training, providing, or assisting in providing medical treatment, driving, being a passenger upon an equine, mounted or unmounted, or a person assisting a participant or show management.
In some states, “engaging in an equine activity” does NOT include being a spectator at an equine activity, except in cases where the spectator places himself in an unauthorized area in immediate proximity to the equine activity. Other states have a more broad definition of “participant” to include, “those who accompany a person engaged in an equine activity” and some states go even further to include “people visiting, touring, or utilizing an equine facility”. States that utilize these more expansive definitions of “participant” typically afford the equine sponsor/professional more protection than what equine sponsors/professionals have in other states.
In one case, according to the court, a young girl who was injured by a horse while picking up trash in the horse’s paddock was not a “participant” for purposes of the equine activity statute because she did not have the requisite control over the equine when the injury occurred. In that case, the farm owner was not afforded protection by the equine activity statute and a jury verdict was returned in favor of the girl and her family.
In another case, a woman who accompanied her friend to watch the friend’s riding lesson was injured as a horse she walked by lunged over the top of his stall and bit her. According to the court, the woman was considered a “participant”, because, in that state, “people touring, visiting, or utilizing an equine facility” are included in the statutory definition of “participant”. As such, the farm owner was provided immunity from the lawsuit based on the state’s equine activity statute.
Another important distinction among the states is whether horse drawn carriage passengers are considered “participants” for purposes of the equine activity statute. In one carriage related case, a horse owner and his friend were riding in the horse owner’s sled. At one point, while stopping to allow the horse to rest, the friend reached into the back portion of the sled to retrieve a can of beer. As he reached in the back, the horse pulled forward and the friend lost her balance, fell, and sustained serious injuries.
The court did consider the friend to be a “participant” because this particular state’s equine activity statute specifically includes in its definition of “participant”, “being a passenger on a vehicle pulled by an equine”. A number of states, however, have no such inclusion in their definition of “participant”. Of the courts that have decided whether a carriage passenger is a “participant” for purposes of the equine activity statute, there is a near 50/50 split in decisions.
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This post is one piece of a 3-part series on Equine Activity Statutes. Make sure you've read Part 1 and Part 2 before continuing.Another often litigated question in cases that potentially involve the state’s equine activity statute is whether one of the statutory...
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