I began by discussing state equine liability laws, focusing on Tennessee. Equine Activity Liability Statutes have been enacted in all 50 states. These statutes are designed to encourage equine activities by limiting the amount of financial liability associated with them. The reasoning is that equine activities provide many benefits to states - tourism, conservation, events - but there are many risks of injury involved due to the unpredictable nature of horse behavior. Therefore, these statutes provide immunity to equine professionals if an injury occurs - with some exceptions. As I said to the audience, there are almost ALWAYS exceptions.
We spent some time talking about the statutory definitions. For example, under Tennessee law, a "participant" is any person, amateur or professional, who engages in an equine activity. An "equine professional" is a person engaged for compensation either in instructing a participant or renting a horse to a participant, or in renting equipment or tack. Be careful though - these definitions are for legal liability purposes. We also talked about USEF rules, which state essentially that anyone who is paid to interact with horses in any way is considered a professional.
We also spent a significant of time discussing liability for horses at your home. My main point of advice is this: when a friend wants to ride your horse or be around your horses, have them sign a liability release form. Under the law, what happens when a person is injured by your horse on your property depends on the status of the injured person at the time of the injury. There are different rules relating to whether they were trespassing or a social guest, and the doctrine of attractive nuisance will apply in some situations.
But what about boarding a friend's horse at your home? Several of the audience members have one or two boarders to help with costs or because they like having other people around. You'll need at least three things: insurance, liability releases, and a boarding contract. Your homeowner's insurance policy likely will not cover your boarding operation, no matter how small. A liability release will discourage people from suing and protect you if they do. Finally, a boarding contract will articulate the terms and responsibilities of both parties. All three of these documents are important to have, even among friends.
Another concern many people had is what happens if the horse injures another person or another horse, regardless of where the injury happens. Generally speaking, the horse owner is not automatically liable but may have some liability under certain circumstances. Some examples:
- If the horse has a dangerous habit and the owner does not warn of the danger
- If the horse owner rides or handles the horse in a negligent way and as a result the horse injures someone
- If the horse owner fails to provide adequate fencing or stall door latches
What all of these scenarios have in common is that the horse owner was somehow at fault. In legal situations, liability is linked directly to fault. Many of the audience members enjoy trail riding at public facilities, including Shelby Farms Park - which also has a large off-leash dog park. So what, they asked, happens if a dog comes running up to the horses, the dog owner chases the dogs and gets kicked? Well, it will really depend on whether the injury could have been avoided and by whom. If the horses panic and the horse owners do nothing to warn the dog owner that the horses may kick, then the dog owner might have a stronger case. If the dog owner ignores any warnings from the horse owners, then the horse owners might have a stronger case. The specific outcome will depend on the specific facts - if you have a specific question or issue, talk to an attorney (specifically!).
One topic I didn't quite have enough time for was responsibilities while trailering. Before you load up a friend's horse, check your state liability laws. In some states, if you take any compensation for trailering another person's horse, you must have a commercial driver's license. You should also check your insurance policies. If your rig is damaged, normal car insurance may not cover it. Additionally, any type of vehicle coverage most likely will not cover injury to the horses.
Here are my conclusions from this talk:
- Liability is a concern for everyone - if you're not an equine professional, it is still a good idea to cover yourself with a Private Horseowner's Liability Policy
- Know your local laws and do your best to help others know and understand them
- Contracts are the best way for everyone to understand their rights and responsibilities
I very much enjoyed the opportunity to talk with local horse owners. It was a wonderful evening of hearing concerns and helping people navigate the murky waters of the law. I look forward to many more such opportunities.
If you would like to schedule a talk similar to the one recapped here, email Kjirsten at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is happy to talk to groups of any size!