It seemed like a good idea at the time. Sandy, the boarding stable owner, received requests from a few of her boarders to allow their own riding instructors to give lessons on the stable’s property. The instructors, they assured her, would conduct the lessons in a non-disruptive way and would use an arena when few boarders were around. The instructors, they further assured her, couldn’t possibly pose a liability risk to the stable because they had no affiliation with the stable. And each instructor would give the stable $10 for each lesson provided there. Sandy consented.
Later, however, one of Sandy’s boarders was seriously injured during a lesson. Then, Sandy received a letter from a lawyer representing the injured boarder that demanded compensation and threatened a lawsuit. Sandy, who had no insurance for lessons, asked the instructor to take responsibility for the matter, but quickly learned that the instructor had no liability insurance and no money to hire a lawyer. Now, Sandy is left to fend for herself against the possibility of costly litigation.
What should stable managers do when they are asked to allow instructors to give lessons on the stable’s property? Do the risks outweigh the advantages?
Liability is, by far, the biggest concern when allowing riding instructors to give lessons at the stable. Merely because independent riding instructors operate their own businesses and are not stable employees does not mean that these arrangements are risk-free for the stable. The sad reality is that lawyers who represent injured people usually direct their claims or lawsuits against all people or businesses that have a connection to the horse, the land, or the business operation. And if the instructor’s relationship to the stable is not clearly documented or understood, or if the stable accepts money from the instructor for his or her use of the stable’s property, this might give a lawyer the impression that the stable and instructor are connected as agent, joint venturers, or business partners.
When a suit comes in, everyone will need legal assistance in an effort to remove themselves from the case. While it is not always easy to predict who will win or lose, there is one guarantee—the cost of a legal defense can be tremendous.
The law generally imposes a duty on instructors to use reasonable care to see that their students are reasonably safe. The one who brings a case of negligence (the “plaintiff”) claims that the one allegedly at fault (the “defendant”) failed to act as a reasonably prudent person would have under similar circumstances. The legal standard of negligence typically applies in states that have no equine activity liability statute, such as California, Maryland, Nevada, and New York. Under a standard of negligence, riding instructors have, over the years, been sued for several different things, such as improperly supervising the student or improperly increasing the risks in a lesson (one California case, as an example, raised issues of an instructor’s liability because she allegedly set up a jumping course deemed hazardous).
Equine Liability Acts
Equine liability acts aim to spell out the assumption of risk by riders and limit the liability of stables. But stables should be aware that accidents and injuries during a riding lesson could potentially generate liabilities under these acts. Forty-six states (as of April 2006) now have some form of an equine activity liability act on the books. All of the laws differ. A careful reading of these laws will reveal that they do not permanently end all possible liabilities in the horse industry. (For more information on liabilities under these statutes, see “Who’s at Fault,” Stable Management, June 2006.) How or if an equine liability act applies will depend on the particular situation.
Insurance is one reasonable step you can take to protect yourself against liability. Both the stable and the instructor should have proper liability insurance in place—that is, liability insurance that includes the teaching of lessons—when an independent riding instructor gives lessons on the stable’s property. In some cases, a stable’s existing liability insurance coverage might not extend to riding lessons on the property. If a claim or suit is brought against the stable arising from a lesson, the stable runs a serious risk of having no coverage. Stables must make sure they are properly, and explicitly, covered for instructional activities.
There are a few valuable steps stables should take for liability protection, such as:
• Purchasing the extra insurance coverage yourself—if available—to cover the additional risks posed by occasional riding lessons on the property, even though the stable’s staff do not provide the lessons.
• Requiring all visiting riding instructors to show proof of adequate liability insurance with acceptable policy limits. Stables can also ask to be added as an “additional named insured” on the instructors’ policies.
• Prohibiting visiting riding instructors if they cannot provide reasonable evidence that they are properly insured.
Since issues involving insurance coverage as well as additional insured designations can be complex, stables should discuss them with their lawyer or insurance agent.
Liability releases (also called waivers), where allowed by law, can give both the instructor and the stable protection against liability. (See “A Big Release,” Stable Management, October 2007.) Courts in most states are generally willing to enforce liability releases. Because of this, stables have an incentive to require their customers and visitors of legal age to sign well-drafted releases.
Stables can make sure that all riding instructors who do business on the property use proper release documents, as well. The fact that the stable and instructor use different documents will further show that they operate independent businesses.
Drafting a valid, useful liability release demands the attention of a knowledgeable lawyer.
Equine Liability Act Pitfalls
Of the forty-six states that have Equine Liability laws, many of these laws obligate “equine professionals” and sometimes “equine activity sponsors” to include certain very specific language in their contracts and releases. Several of these laws also require that the “equine professional” post warning signs on the premises. Again, the wording of these warnings is very specific. Stables would be wise to check the laws in their states to make sure they comply with sign posting and contract language requirements, if any.
This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable attorney.
Julie I. Fershtman has 22 years of experience in equine law and has authored two related books. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net.