Even Just Watching

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With their sheer strength and size, and because they act on instinct, horses can hurt virtually anyone near them. Spectators at shows and visitors at stables, merely by being near horses, can be at risk. And as these following examples show, spectators sometimes sue.

• At a parade, a spectator who wanted to cross the street spotted a “break” in the parade procession that was just ahead of an approaching group of horses. The spectator crossed at the break while he carried a lawn chair. A pony in the group of advancing horses in the parade, likely spooking from the lawn chair, bolted forward and collided with the spectator, causing injuries.

• A guest at a stable observed a horse being led toward a pasture and through a gate. Suddenly, the horse bolted backwards into the gate, which caused fence rail boards to pop out of a bracket and strike the stable guest in the face. She was seriously injured.

• A spectator at a rodeo was injured when he placed his hands on the outside of a chain link fence, but his hands became entangled when a horse that was tied to the fence suddenly pulled away.

• After watching a friend take a riding lesson, a visitor at a riding stable walked down a barn aisle, but one of the horses in the barn allegedly lunged its head outside of its stall door and bit the visitor.

In each of these examples, lawsuits followed. This article explores spectator liabilities and provides some suggestions for avoiding them.

Lawsuits

When injured spectators sue horse owners and stables, their lawsuits typically proceed under the legal theory of negligence or under a provision of a state equine activity liability act. Both of these are discussed below.

Negligence: In lawsuits involving negligence, the one who sues (called the plaintiff) claims that the person or business allegedly at fault (called the defendant) failed to act as a reasonably prudent person would have under similar circumstances.

For example, an 82 year-old spectator at an Ohio race track brought a lawsuit that alleged negligence after she was trampled by a loose race horse. There, the woman had been watching the races, but one of the race horses unseated its rider and ran loose throughout the grounds. The race track was negligent, she claimed, because it unreasonably allowed gates to remain open during the races and allowed the horse an opportunity to approach spectators such as the plaintiff. While the trial court dismissed the case for the reason that the risk of being struck by a loose horse at a race horse was an “inherent risk” that spectators should expect, the case proceeded all the way to the Ohio Court of Appeals. That court stated that “the risk of being trampled by a runaway horse that has come off a racetrack through a negligently placed or permitted gap in the surrounding fence is not an inherent risk of horse racing.” That court allowed the spectator’s case to proceed.

Equine Liability Acts: As of March 2009, 46 states have equine activity liability acts on the books. These laws all differ, but generally apply to people who are “participants” and “engage in equine activities.” An issue that occasionally arises is whether the law applies to claims brought by spectators who were hurt while visiting stables or equine events. In one lawsuit, for example, a court ruled that Michigan’s Equine Activity Liability Act applied to a lawsuit brought by a visitor at a stable who was merely walking down the barn aisle when she was bitten by a horse. The plaintiff (the one who brought the suit) claimed that she was not an “equine activity participant” and the law was inapplicable because she was merely walking through the barn and not interacting with any of the horses. The court disagreed and ruled that the equine activity liability act did apply under the circumstances. It pointed to a definition found within Michigan’s law, that defined a “participant” in an equine activity to include people who were “visiting, touring, or utilizing an equine facility.” That is what the plaintiff was doing, the court reasoned, when she was bitten by the horse.

In that case in Ohio where the plaintiff sustained facial injuries on fence boards, the plaintiff sued for negligence in the handling of the horse and dangerous gates. Ultimately, the court tossed out the case on the strength of Ohio’s equine activity liability act. It found that the plaintiff, as a spectator or bystander at the stable, qualified as a “participant” for whom the law applied.

Depending on the language of an equine activity liability statute, spectators could be exempt from the law. Colorado’s law, for example, states that it applies to “participants” who “engage in an equine activity” but proceeds to state that “the term ‘engages 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 and in immediate proximity to the equine activity.”

Avoiding Liability

Stables should be mindful of the threat of a lawsuit from injured spectators and can take a few precautions. Here are a few:

1. Stable Rules. Stables, it seems, are constantly mindful of the risks that horses pose to riders and handlers, and their rules often reflect this by targeting active equestrians. But visitors and spectators are equally, if not more, common at stables. With this in mind, stables should consider establishing and enforcing rules that are designed to apply to visitors and guests. And make these rules evident through signage.

2. Releases of Liability. Courts in most states have shown a willingness to enforce releases of liability. One of the most common reasons why releases fail is that they were improperly drafted. For example, some form releases provide that the signer agrees to release the stable from liability only if the signer is injured while riding a horse. What the release forms completely ignore, however, is the possibility that the signer could be injured while on the stable grounds, handling a horse, or near horses. A release document that applies only to the mounted rider runs a serious risk of being unenforceable in other settings. Instead, the stable’s release (where allowed by law) can specify that the signer has agreed to releasing the stable from liability if he or she is injured while merely on the stable’s property or near horses.

3. Liability Insurance. Liability insurance is a must for stables. A few types of liability insurance policies offer stables protection against claims involving injured spectators or visitors at a stable. These policies include:

• homeowner’s liability insurance

• farmowner’s insurance

• personal horse owner’s liability insurance (sometimes called “Private Horse Owner’s Liability Insurance” or “Individual Horse Owner’s Liability Insurance”)

• commercial general liability insurance

• event liability insurance.

Your insurance agent can best explain which coverages are best for you. Never assume that you do not need insurance if your state has passed an equine activity liability law or if you regularly use releases of liability.

This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable attorney.

Julie I. Fershtman is an attorney with 23 years experience who serves the horse industry. She is also the author of two books on equine law. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net.