Equine Liability and How to Protect Yourself Against a Lawsuit
The inherent risks of the horse business means that myriad pitfalls abound for the horse professional, stable owner, trainer, or instructor. It is important to be aware of actions that can be taken in pursuit of lawsuit protection.
Few horse owners enter into an agreement or contract with malicious intent, but adverse circumstances can cause an unexpected change of heart, and the horse professional must take all available steps to be protected.
1) Keeping a Vicious or Dangerous Horse
“Vicious” in this context includes biting or kicking. The possible scenarios here are endless, but consider this potential situation: a new farrier unfamiliar with the horse gets kicked while shoeing and breaks his/her leg. The owner of the horse, knowing the temperament of the horse, could be found liable for the farrier’s injuries.
The best lawsuit protection in this circumstance is to take actions to get rid of the horse. Barring that, you should try to reduce its contact with people or other horses, make certain that anyone who comes near has plenty of warning that the horse is potentially vicious or dangerous, and have a private horse owners liability insurance policy.
2) Faulty Tack or Equipment
Suppose you are giving a riding lesson, and inexplicably the horse bolts. When the student pulls back on the reins, the reins break. Frightened, the student tries to jump off and breaks his/her leg. The student claims you were negligent due to faulty tack.
Such lawsuits are fairly common and are easy to guard against. Establish a regular program of rigorous tack cleaning, maintenance, and repair, and put it in writing so that all employees understand the procedure.
3) Placing a Rider on an Unsuitable Horse
A possible scenario here is you are running a summer camp. After an initial evaluation, each rider is assigned to a horse. During a lesson, one camper has trouble controlling the horse, falls off, and sustains a serious injury. You could be held responsible because the student claims you were negligent in determining the suitability of the horse.
Protect yourself by doing a thorough evaluation of every rider, watch carefully and change horses immediately if the rider is having trouble.
4) Allowing a Student to Ride without a Helmet
Picture a scenario in which a student is hacking without a helmet because you only require helmets for jumping. The horse spooks and the student falls, sustaining a brain injury. Because you failed to require the use of protective headgear, you will be open to liability.
Requiring anyone mounted on a horse to wear an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet can easily protect both the wellbeing of your riders and your own accountability.
5) Operating as a Sole Proprietorship without Considering Other Business Forms
While a sole proprietorship is the simplest and easiest business form, partnerships, corporations, and limited liability corporations may offer a way to reduce liability and prevent a lawsuit.
Find the type of business formation that can best protect you. An equine attorney can help you consider your options while taking into consideration tax advantages, reduction of liability, ease of ownership transfer, and statutory requirements.
6) Assuming Your Homeowners Insurance Protects Your Equine Related Liability
Feeling confident your homeowner’s policy will protect you from liability, you let a friend take your horse on a trail ride. Your friend falls off and breaks his/her leg — and you’re left paying thousands of dollars in medical bills and attorneys’ fees.
7) Trailering a Friend’s Horse to a Horse Show
Think about a situation in which you are trailering your horse and a friend’s horse home from a horse show, and an accident ensues. Your horse is fine, but the other horse is injured. Your friend expects you to pay for all of the bills associated with the horse’s injury and you find that your homeowner’s insurance policy excludes non-owned property in your care, custody, and control. Your friend takes the matter to court based upon negligence and a bailor/bailee theory.
Aside from never trailering a horse you do not own, the best way to protect yourself is to make certain that you have insurance that will cover you in this circumstance.
8) Using a Liability Release with Defective Language
Suppose that a student who has signed your liability release form is injured during a lesson, and you end up in court, and the court finds that your form is defective.
Protect yourself by having an equine attorney review your release form. For example, California courts have established guidelines for an enforceable release, which include such minutiae as the size of the font, and the boldings of headings and indentions.
9) Designating Your Employees as Independent Contractors
Imagine that your groom is leading a horse in from turnout when the horse rears and kicks the groom in the head. Hospitalized for several months, he faces astronomical medical bills. He is denied worker’s compensation because by calling him an independent contractor, you didn’t need to carry that insurance. Your groom sues, and you find yourself responsible for all medical costs, plus a penalty for mislabeling your employees.
Know the guidelines for independent contractors. If in doubt, contact an equine attorney who can advise you about worker’s compensation insurance.
“Many attorneys include equine law as a sidenote to their practice, but Hey & Hey Attorneys at Law specializes in the full range of equine law services. We also have nearly 30 years of experience in the horse industry.”