The common misconception that releases aren’t worth the paper they’re written on could be disastrous for horse businesses. Releases always make good sense. Below are 10 myths about them followed by the truth, supported by actual case law in some instances.
1. Courts won’t enforce releases: Despite rumors to the contrary, nearly all states view a properly written release as a valid contract and legally enforceable.
Actual Case: Lori Desena1 was injured while taking riding lessons at Riverdale Riding Corp. when her horse reared and threw her to the ground. Desena alleged that this happened as a result of her horse being bitten by another horse. Riverdale applied for summary judgment (a dismissal before trial because there is no case) based upon a five-page release that Desena had signed prior to the lesson.
Actual Case: Hannah Filson2 and her husband went on an overnight excursion through the Adirondacks organized and operated by Cold River Trail Rides, Inc. On the second day, while attempting to mount her horse, the horse moved back and reared, causing Filson to fall, and sustain injuries to her mouth and teeth. Prior to the ride, she had signed a release.
Both of these cases occurred in New York, which is probably the most restrictive state with regard to releases. New York law holds that releases for any recreational facility or place of amusement will be void because they are against public policy. In Desena’s case, the question was whether riding lessons are amusement or recreational in nature. Based upon testimony from Riverdale’s president, Riverdale did not provide trail rides and that any use of horses (other than by boarders) was instructional. The Court, therefore, held that Riverdale was not a place of amusement or recreation within the meaning of the statute and that the release was enforceable. Desena’s case was dismissed. Filson, however, was clearly involved in a recreational activity at the time and the release was declared void. She was allowed to sue.
2. Legal gobbledygook is good in a release: If a release is clearly understood, it is more likely to work than one filled with “wherefores,” “herefores” and “whatfores.”
Releases usually become unenforceable when no one can understand them. For it to be enforceable, a release needs to clearly explain the risks that the signer is accepting. It also, however, needs to include any specific language that your state requires.
3. One parent’s signature is enough for a release: If you can’t get a joint credit card with only one signature, why should you be able to do it with children?
Actual case: Teenager Brandy Rogers3 entered a horse race at the Andrew Jackson Day celebration. Prior to entering the race, Brandy, as required, had her mother sign a release for the event’s sponsors. Beyond the finish line was a run-out area adjacent to the vehicle entrance gate. When Brandy entered the run-out area, two cars crossed her path, causing her to turn her horse’s head hard left. The horse went down and rolled over Brandy, causing a fatal brain injury.
Brandy’s parents sued, alleging that the sponsors of the race were negligent in the location of the run-out area. During the race the previous year, several horses fell as they ran downhill, and at least one person broke a leg. Brandy’s parents argued that these accidents should have served as a warning to the show’s sponsors. The sponsors argued that the release legally prevented Brandy’s parents from suing.
In the end, Brandy’s parents had a right to sue the race’s sponsors for their loss based upon Brandy’s medical expenses and the parents’ loss of services. It was also decided by the courts that Brandy’s father, who did not sign a release, had an independent right to sue what was not affected by his wife’s signature.
4. A child can sign a release: Well, actually, yes, a child can sign a release, but it won’t be legally enforceable. Until a child reaches eighteen, he can’t sign a legally binding contract.
5. You can’t release your own negligence: In many states, if a release specifically states that it will protect you from your own negligence, then it will.
Actual case: Eva Buckner4 was injured when the horse she rented from Harold Varner (d/b/a Hayloft Riding Stables) reared up and ran. The bridle broke and Buckner fell from the horse. Prior to the ride, she had signed a release from any negligence of Varner. She agreed that the release would bar her claim for ordinary negligence, but argued that Varner was grossly negligent in supplying her with a defective bridle and a spirited horse when she asked for a calm horse.
For a release to include negligence, this must be specifically included, which it was. In Buckner’s case, if she had been able to prove gross negligence, the release would not apply. A release can only protect a stable from ordinary negligence and no release can protect from gross negligence. The court didn’t believe that Buckner had any facts on which to prove gross negligence (defective bridle and spirited horse are not gross negligence,) according to the court. Her case was dismissed because the release was effective.
6. A release should just reference horse activities: Well, if you’re only worried about accidents that involve horses, then yes. However, if you’re worried about any accident that happens while someone is on your farm, then your release needs to include anything that could happen on a farm.
Actual case: Israel Borges5 was a trainer of thoroughbred racehorses. While his horses were at Suffolk Downs Track, he slipped and fell on some ice, causing him injury. Prior to keeping his horses at Suffolk Downs, he had signed a release that included any injuries that occurred at Suffolk Downs. This release was part of the stall application.
Borges was left with only one argument: The release had expired. Notice he did not contend that the release wasn’t valid or that it shouldn’t include slipping on ice, because the release covered any injury that happened on the Suffolk Downs property.
7. Because my state has an Equine Liability Act, I don’t need a release: There are two problems with this approach. One is that some state’s Acts specifically require a release that contains specific information. The other is that Equine Liability Acts only cover horse-related accidents, not farm-related accidents as described in Myth #6.
8. I have insurance, I don’t need releases: Actually you need to have both. Many insurance companies require that you use releases if you run a stable.
9. If a client didn’t read the release she just signed and gets injured, she can claim she didn’t understand the release: When a person signs a release, it is their obligation to read and understand it. Claiming afterwards that they didn’t understand it won’t work.
Actual case: Rondal Shumate6 went for a trail ride at a stable run by Ray Lycan. Shumate’s leg was injured when another horse kicked him. Prior to going on the trail ride, Shumate signed a release. Shumate argued that Lycan and his staff rushed him to read the release and therefore he did not have time to read it. He also contended that Lycan was negligent for not making any effort to ensure that he understood the release.
The Court pointed out that Shumate made no allegations that he could not read or that he was incapable of understanding a release. The fact that Shumate did not read the release can only be attributed to Shumate’s neglect.
10. I only have a couple of neighborhood children ride my horse occasionally, I don’t need a release: Although the more horses you have and the more people riding them increases your risks, a serious accident can happen at any time. It could be your bad luck to have someone injured the first time they get on your horse.
While no one likes paperwork, a properly-worded, well-researched release can save a lot of headaches in the future. With horses, where there is a certain amount of inherent risk, it is wise to cover yourself from as many angles as possible.
1. Salazar v. Riverdale Riding Corp., 701 N.Y.S.2d 878 (NY Supp.Ct. 1999)
2. Filson v. Cold River Trail Rides, Inc., 661 N.Y.S.2d 841 (NY App.Ct. 1997)
3. Rogers v. Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce, 807 S.W.2d 242 (TN App.Ct. 1990).
4. Buckner v. Varner, 793 S.W.2d 939 (TN App.Ct. 1990)
5. Borges v. Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, Inc., unpublished (MA Supp.Ct. 2000)
6. Shumate v. Lycan, 675 N.E.2d 749 (IN App.Ct. 1997)