A highly experienced horse trainer, while training a customer’s horse, is bucked off and seriously injured. He sues the owner.
To some, the risk of getting bucked off would seem to be foreseeable for the job of horse training. But to others, this setting is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Over the years, when trainers have been injured while handling or training horses, lawsuits have sometimes followed. Some of them succeed, some fail.
When do trainers have recourse against their customers for injuries inflicted on-the-job by the customers’ horses? What can trainers and owners do to protect themselves for this possibility? Let’s look to some cases that have already been decided.
Not only are horses themselves unpredictable, but the outcomes of lawsuits brought by horse trainers can also have little predictability. Two cases help illustrate this point:
• The trainer loses. In a 1984 case from Indiana, a horse allegedly attacked its trainer who was working the horse in an arena on a longe line. Later, the trainer sued her client, the horse’s owner, claiming that the owner was negligent. In the end, the court dismissed the case based on the principle that the trainer was well-equipped to know the risks of working with horses and had “assumed the risk” of being injured.
Some years later, New York’s highest court ruled that a case brought by the famous jockey Ron Turcotte, who was best known for riding Secretariat to his triple crown victory, should be dismissed. During a horse race at Belmont Park, Turcotte fell and was rendered a paraplegic. He sued several people, including a jockey who allegedly caused the accident and the owner of the horse the jockey rode. In dismissing the case, New York’s highest court stated in part that “professional sporting contests. . .by their nature involve an elevated degree of danger. If a participant makes an informed estimate of the risks involved in the activity and willingly undertakes them, then there can be no liability if he is injured as a result of those risks.”
• The trainer wins. On the other hand, some courts have ruled that injured trainers do have recourse against others when they are injured. For example, in a 1999 New York case, a horse trainer with 20 years of experience volunteered to help another trainer load a colt into a trailer but was injured when the horse kicked her leg. She sued the horse farm, claiming that it was negligent for, among other things, failing to warn her of the colt’s dangerous propensities and administering an improper medication to the horse in an attempt to tranquilize it before the incident. The court held that the trainer did not “assume the risk” of being kicked under the circumstances.
In comparable fashion, in a 1996 Minnesota case, a professional horseshoer was kicked while trimming a customer’s horse and he sued, claiming that the horse owner knew, but never warned, that the horse was a known “kicker.” The court held that the farrier deserved her day in court, so that a jury could decide if the horse owner, by not warning of the animal’s history, created an unusually hazardous situation that endangered the farrier.
As of May 2007, 46 states have passed some form of equine activity liability law. All of the laws differ, but many of them share common characteristics. Most of these laws state that an equine professional, equine activity sponsor or “another person” should not be held liable if someone is injured as a result of an “inherent risk of equine activity.” The laws typically include exceptions that could allow certain kinds of lawsuits to proceed.
Since the passage of the equine activity liability laws, a few lawsuits have been filed by injured equine professionals who were injured on the job. Here are two of them:
• The owner wins. In a Georgia case, a professional horse trainer was kicked while preparing a horse for a horse show, and the trainer sued the owner. On the strength of Georgia’s Equine Activity Liability Act, however, the trial court dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, finding that the law immunized the horse owner under the circumstances because the trainer qualified as a “participant in an equine activity” to whom the law was meant to apply. Also, in a 1998 Louisiana court decision, the equine liability law took credit for dismissal of a case brought by a race horse exercise rider who was injured on the job.
• The trainer wins. In a Massachusetts case, a self-employed horse trainer took a test ride on a horse to evaluate it for potential purchase, but rode the horse on the track opposite the normal course of traffic. The horse threw him, causing injuries. Throughout the case, a dispute existed as to whether the horse’s owners warned the trainer that the horse was temperamental and disliked being ridden in the “wrong” direction on the track. Because of this discrepancy, the court ruled that a jury needed to decide whether the owners had complied with a requirement in the Massachusetts Equine Activity Liability Act to “make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the trainer’s ability” to safely ride the horse.
As these cases show, the answer can be complicated. Horse trainers are more likely to lose their cases against the horse owners, especially when the person was injured from a risk that was inherent in the activity. This means, for example, that the trainer who is bucked off by a young colt being ridden for the first time would find it difficult to succeed in a case against the owner. But if the owner neglected to notify the trainer that the horse had an unusually dangerous history, the trainer might have a better chance of success in his or her case, depending on the regional law.
This article is not intended to constitute legal advice. Where questions arise based on specific situations, consult with a knowledgeable attorney.Julie I. Fershtman is an attorney with over 20 years experience. She is the author of two books on equine law, has achieved numerous courtroom victories on equine cases, and has drafted hundreds of contracts. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net or www.equinelaw.info.