We live in a litigious society: people are prone to blame others for an injury just because the injury occurred on your premises or involved your facility or horses.
Several ongoing items of documentation should be maintained to help you and your claims adjuster defend claims should they arise. One is a description of the horses on hand, noting each horse’s age, sex, height, color, breed, etc. Do you document periodic tack checks? Do you keep records as to when each horse was last exercised or was out on a guided trip? You should. Most juries find that if you didn’t document it, you didn’t do it! There is simply no way to defend your actions if you have no documentation to back up your claim.
What should be done when an accident occurs? The first and foremost objective is to assist with the care of the injured guest. Your next objective is to preserve and gather all facts and identify and interview all witnesses to the event. It is extremely important to get witnesses who are independent—that is, not related to the injured guest or the facility.
If you board horses for others and use them in your business, you will need to put the owner on notice if the incident involved the boarder’s horse. You should suggest they put their homeowner’s carrier on notice to work with your own insurance carrier.
If your insurance carrier has an Accident Report Form, have them handy and ready for completion. If they don’t, consider developing one yourself that will take into consideration the different aspects of your business. (For an example, see opposite.)
We also recommend a Release of Liability that should include information about the riders themselves. On this release, have riders indicate their previous experience because there may be a claim that the rider was given a horse that was too difficult to handle for their level. Did the rider request a certain horse or a certain type of horse and was this request met? If no request was made, was the horse that was furnished appropriate for the rider given the experience the rider indicated on the release? The release should also outline the inherent risks of the activity itself. Do you have equipment for rent, such as helmets? If so, be sure there is a release for all rental equipment or protective devices. Be sure to have your local attorney review the release for applicability and enforcement in the state where you conduct business.
You’ll want to be sure that you have documented any pre-ride instructions that the guides or instructors give the guests. Be specific.
Determine if the horse was frightened or startled for any reason, and if so, how and by whom or what? Did the horse trip, stumble or slip? Was the horse walking, trotting, cantering or galloping? Did the rider do something to provoke the horse’s actions? Get details from the other riders and employees. Be sure to have witnesses, instructors or guides complete a statement in their own words. Have the statement dated and signed noting the witness’ permanent address and telephone number. You won’t be able to find Dave from Detroit.
If the accident involved any equipment such as the saddle, reins, bridle, stirrups or other equipment, exactly what piece of equipment was involved and how did it contribute to the accident? If the equipment is not repairable, place the equipment in a secure place for testing. Do not dispose of the damaged equipment.
It is very likely the experience of your employees will come into play, so you will need good documentation as to prior work history and experience of employees.
Finally, you’ll want to take photos of the accident site and these should be taken as soon after the accident as possible. An injured person usually recalls the conditions of the scene as being much worse than they actually were or the jumps being much higher. Wait until the injured party has been removed from the scene of the accident before taking the photos. You don’t want to give the impression that you’re more worried about protecting yourself than the welfare of the client.
The last suggestion is to follow up with the injured client or guest. If a person feels you care, they are less likely to bring a claim against you. We have heard from many claimants that the business owner just didn’t seem to care that they were injured. If you’re not comfortable calling the guest, consider sending a get-well or thinking-of-you card.
These are just a few suggestions of the many that could be made. You and your attorney will be glad you took the time to keep records and document incidents with as much information as possible.