No horse show would be complete without a judge. But sometimes the horse show, itself, is called upon to appear before a judge—in a court of law. In our litigious society, lawsuits have been filed against horse show managers as well as the land owners, show competitors, trainers, and horse owners arising from accidents that occurred at shows.
This article discusses some of the legal aspects of show management pertaining to liability and concludes with suggestions for avoiding liability.
Here are examples of actual lawsuits involving horse shows:
• Spectators near the arena. During a large outdoor horse show in Michigan, a horse broke free in the warm-up ring and ran loose through the grounds. Moments later, the horse collided with a spectator. He sued show management, the owner of the loose horse, the trainer of the loose horse and even the boarding stable from which the loose horse had been hauled. In another case from Texas, a spectator at a barrel racing event was seriously injured after being struck in the eye by flying debris, believed to be a rock that a competing horse had kicked up. She sued the arena owner as well as the show management.
• Spectators on the show grounds. It does not take proximity to a horse to generate injuries, and sometimes litigation, against show management. A few years ago, the organizers of a highly successful three-day event competition in Kentucky were sued under basic principles of premises liability after a spectator slipped and fell inside a designated member tent. In another case, from Nebraska, a spectator was seriously injured after being run down by a horse that was cantering out of an arena exit gate. At the time, the spectator was walking to his seat on the bleachers, and the travel pattern crossed the arena gate, with no personnel monitoring the area to keep the spectators away from the horses.
• Competitors. At a cutting horse competition in Wisconsin several years ago, while a contestant’s horse went head to head against a cow, the horse lost its footing and fell over on the rider. The rider later died from his injuries, and his widow sued the show management and others. In a Louisiana case, while two competitors exchanged greetings at the horse show arena entrance/exit gate, a horse kicked the other competitor. The injured competitor sued.
• Volunteers. During a demonstration at a popular stallion exposition in Michigan, a stallion suddenly attacked his handler and then ran loose through the show arena. A volunteer entered the arena soon after in an attempt to catch the horse, but the stallion attacked her. She sued the show management and the stallion owner.
As these cases indicate, nearly every aspect of horse show management—such as the arena footing, gate personnel, concession areas, spectator travel paths, volunteer training, and more—could generate a claim or suit. Show managers would be wise to understand these risks and plan ahead.
When participants or spectators bring lawsuits as a result of injuries sustained at a horse show, they have sued under legal theories of negligence or an applicable state equine activity liability act.
Negligence: The law generally imposes a duty on show management to exercise reasonable care to see that participants and spectators are reasonably safe. The one who brings a case of negligence (called the “plaintiff”) claims that the one allegedly at fault (called the “defendant”) failed to act as a reasonably prudent person would have under similar circumstances. In the case involving the cutting horse competitor in Wisconsin, for example, his estate sued the horse show management alleging that it negligently maintained merely a few inched of dirt over the show arena’s cement floor. This footing, the plaintiff argued, was unreasonable and led to the fatal incident of the horse slipping and falling over on the rider.
Equine Liability Acts: Forty-six states (as of April 2006) now have some form of equine activity liability act on the books. And all of the laws differ. Show managers who assume that liability has become obsolete with the advent of these equine activity liability laws are making a serious mistake. A careful reading of each law will reveal that they do not permanently end all possible liabilities in the horse industry.
Over the years, equine activity liability laws have been applied to horse events such as horse shows, clinics, fox hunts, and rodeos. Sometimes, these laws bring a quick dismissal of the litigation, but sometimes not. In the case involving the rider whose horse kicked a fellow competitor near the arena gate at a show in Louisiana, for example, the law succeeded. The court held that Louisiana’s Equine Activity Liability Act applied, protected the owner of the horse that inflicted the kick, and warranted dismissal of the case because the plaintiff’s injuries resulted from “inherent risks” under that state’s law.
Horse show management should take note that many of the equine activity liability laws require “equine activity sponsors” and sometimes “equine professionals” to post “warning” signs that contain certain language. Several laws dictate sign sizes, letter sizes for the warnings, sign color, and sign placement. Many states require that warning or other mandated language be included in contracts.
Find out if these requirements apply to you. Show managers, over the years, have found creative ways to comply. An interesting example comes from Georgia where the organizers of a fox hunt complied with Georgia’s sign posting requirement by placing the “warning” sign on a vehicle windshield near the hunt’s starting point. This helped secure dismissal of a lawsuit when an experienced fox hunter was injured during the event.
Horse show management can take several measures in an effort to make their events as safe as possible and to reduce the risk of problems and litigation. Here are a few worth considering:
Liability Insurance: Liability insurance does not prevent lawsuits from happening, but it can protect the finances of the organization, show management, and its members if the worst-case scenario should happen.
Horse owners and show management sometimes make risky assumptions when it comes to liability insurance. For example, boarding stable owners who hold a schooling show might assume they are insured for these activities under their commercial liability policies, when, in fact, their policies do not cover shows. Also, backyard horse owners who host clinics and charge entry fees might find that their homeowner’s insurance policies offer no coverage based on the “business pursuits” exclusions within homeowner’s insurance policies.
To prevent costly mistakes, discuss your activities with a knowledgeable insurance agent or attorney before the activity takes place.
Safety Rules: Even with the most consistent dedication to safety, accidents can, and do, happen. Horse show managers can plan ahead for problems or emergencies. For example:
• If the show does not provide an ambulance on the grounds, keep the number handy to summon help. Keep readily available directions to help the service locate the show quickly.
• Consider having participants of legal age, and even spectators if possible, sign properly worded liability releases/waivers (where allowed by law).
• Establish and publish policies regarding dogs at the event. Some shows require dogs to be leashed and attended at all times, while others forbid dogs altogether.
• To keep people from entering forbidden areas, post signs or use noticeable barricades.
• Consider establishing written rules for people who stable their horses on the show grounds. A popular show facility in California, for example, gives all competitors a detailed set of rules for using the show grounds. One rule provides that when a horse is removed from a stall on the grounds, the stall door must be closed and the aisle must be clear.
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 who is an expert in the horse industry. She is the author of two books on equine law, has achieved numerous courtroom victories on equine cases, and has drafted hundreds of industry contracts. For more information, check out either www.equinelaw.net or www.equinelaw.info.