We asked experienced horse person and attorney Milton C. Toby whether we should post “Caution Horses Bite” signs in light of the recent ruling in Connecticut about whether horses are inherently dangerous in a legal sense. The information in this article is meant as a discussion, not legal advice. You should talk to an attorney in your area to find out what will offer the best protection for your farm or horse business in your situation.
Should horse owners post “Caution Horses Bite” signs?
There are too many variables for a one-size-fits-all answer—does your state have an equine activity liability statute with requirements for warning signs? If so, have you posted those signs? Is the horse a fractious stallion or a placid gelding? Does the horse have a history of biting or are you trying to be proactive? Do you use written liability waivers for your clients that specifically include biting as an inherent risk of being around horses? The best advice is to pose the question to an attorney familiar with the laws in your state and with how those laws affect the horse business.
In general, horse owners in one of the 46 states with equine activity liability laws should follow the warning sign requirements of those laws to the letter. The laws represent legislative intent to insulate horse businesses from liability for injuries resulting from those risks inherent to the horse industry. Whether posting additional signs not required by the law, such as “Caution Horses Bite,” helps or hurts is a question of how courts interpret their state’s laws. Liability waivers that include assumption of the risk provisions and identify biting as one of those risks also are important, especially in states without equine activity liability laws (California, Maryland, New York and Nevada).
Connecticut has an equine activity liability law, but the state’s Supreme Court did not address the question of how—or even whether—that law applied in Vendrella v. Astriab Family Partnership. The Connecticut statute applies specifically to individuals “engaged in recreational equestrian activities,” and the defendants did not claim that the injured child was taking part in such activities.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court is not binding legal precedent anywhere else. Until a few trial results make their way through the Connecticut appellate courts, which is not a rapid process, it is difficult to assess the impact of this case.
State liability laws all have the same general purpose: To define the legal duty that a horse farm owner or equine activity sponsor has to someone else. Generally, that duty is to warn participants about inherent risks of equine activities (that's the purpose of the signs), but not to make the activities safe. In Kentucky, where the law actually covers all farm animals, not just horses, there is a very broad definition of "farm animal activity" that covers just about everything.
There are limits, though--the law only applies to "participants" in the activity. Spectators are specifically excluded from application of the law. This means that the law can be used as a defense to a personal injury lawsuit if someone taking part in an equine activity is injured, but not if the injured person is merely watching. Some other states include spectators in the definition of "participants," so it's important to know what the law in your state says. My guess is that the defendants didn’t rely on the Connecticut equine activity liability law because they couldn't argue that the injury involved an equine "activity." The kid was bitten when he tried to pet a horse in a field adjacent to the owners' greenhouse, not at an organized event of some kind.
The equine liability laws won’t help if a stranger stops his car, walks up to the fence, and gets bitten when he tries to pet a horse hanging its head over the fence. That's not participating in an equine activity, either. That person is a trespasser on your property, though, and a landowner has no duty to keep a trespasser safe--unless the injured person is a child. Then an entirely different body of law (whether you’re liable because the horse is an attractive nuisance) comes into play.
So you can still be sued, even if you have signed waivers and have posted the correct signs?
You’re correct about the danger of frivolous lawsuits. The equine activity laws can't prevent a lawsuit, but they do serve as an effective defense that can be raised in court unless one of the exceptions applies. These include negligence, faulty tack, failure to assess the riding ability of a participant, and so on.