No Place for Negligence: Limiting Your Liability in Unique Situations

No Place for Negligence: Limiting Your Liability in Unique Situations   By Peter J. Sacopulos   Tom was brimming with confidence as he and the groom led his hottest prospect into the winner’s circle following a win in an allowance race on the turf. An experienced trainer, Tom was sure that everyone’s hard work would pay off, and it had. But in a matter of moments, his excitement and exuberance turned into concern. In addition to horses, grooms, and trainers, the winner’s circle was crowded with excited and exuberant spectators, many of whom appeared to have spent little or no time around horses. Tom knew that group ticket packages often included photos in the winner’s circle. He appreciated the importance of promoting the sport and creating new fans. But this seemed like too much.   Tom, the groom, and their horse were soon surrounded by excited guests. The trainer and the groom warned people not to get too close. They tried to be polite and answer questions as the visitors snapped pictures with smartphones. Unfortunately, one would-be fan didn’t realize his flash was on, and three bright bursts of light erupted just a few feet from the horse’s face. The Thoroughbred spun and kicked the man in the chest, sending him crashing to the ground. Tom and the groom managed to get the horse under control quickly to prevent additional injuries. The EMTs arrived and rushed the man to the hospital.   Tom’s big day literally ended in a flash. A few weeks later, he was served legal papers. The injured man was suing him for negligence.   The situation I have just described is hypothetical. However, the legal implications are very real. As a trainer, you are responsible for large, powerful, and often high-strung animals in a variety of situations; situations that are far more fluid and complex than a casual observer could possibly realize. If a horse gets out of control and causes injury on the backside, in the paddock, or winner’s circle, who is liable? You, as the trainer? The owner? The track? All of the above?   This is a question with no easy answer, and the degree and distribution of liability may vary widely based on specific circumstances, including the state in which the event occurred. But examining statutes, cases, and other factors leads us to some definite do’s and don’ts that will help you minimize risk and limit your liability.   This examination begins with a discussion of Equine Activity Liability Acts (EALAs), also known as Equestrian Liability Limitation Laws or Equine Immunity Laws. These are state laws created to protect racetracks, rodeos, riding schools, stables, and other equestrian or animal-related businesses from lawsuits over unavoidable accidents. Such laws are based on the concept of inherent risk: the idea that a participant or spectator understands that certain activities carry unavoidable risks and is willingly subjecting himself or herself to those risks. Forty-seven states have some form of Equine Immunity Law on the books. Only New York, California, and Maryland do not.   It is true that an EALA often provides a strong defense and may result in a summary judgement—the dismissal of a lawsuit based on an initial review by a court. However, contrary to industry myths, none of these laws guarantee “zero liability” or “blanket immunity.” No Equine Immunity Law is a free pass to behave recklessly or disregard the safety of others. Most spell out exceptions to immunity based on reckless behavior and negligence and/or gross negligence. The owners of a riding school, for instance, would be unlikely to successfully claim they cannot be held liable for putting an inexperienced five-year-old girl on a hot-tempered horse that they knew was a bolter.   Additionally, the protections these laws offer vary widely from state to state. Some recognize no difference between a “participant” and a “spectator” in equine activities. Others define these as two separate and distinct categories with very different rights to pursue damages. The laws also vary in determining who is protected from liability. Certain states specifically shield veterinarians or farriers, for instance, while others do not. Some require facilities to post signs warning that sponsors and equine professionals cannot be held liable due to inherent risk. Others require signed liability waivers from participants. Needless to say, the complete list of variations is far too extensive to cover here.   If your home state has an EALA, you do receive some degree of liability protection as an equine professional. However, as a trainer, you are likely travel to many states and be governed by different Equine Immunity Laws at different times. You should familiarize yourself with the Equine Liability Law in your home state, as well as any state in which you train/work. If you have questions, consult an experienced equine attorney.   An Equine Immunity Law will likely provide you with some level of liability protection in the barn, paddock, or winner’s circle, provided you are behaving rationally and professionally. But in the absence of specific case law establishing firm legal precedents for these unique areas, we must look to case law of a similar nature for guidance.   Consider the 2013 ruling in Duban vs. Waverly Sales Company.  In this case, a woman was attending an agricultural auction and was trampled by a draft horse. The courts found that certain facts created an exception to Iowa’s immunity statute. In order to use the restroom, the woman and others, who were not actively involved in the auction, had to cross the passageway from the barn to the arena, putting them directly in the path of horses. Additionally, the horse had been startled by the unexpected opening of a trap door in the ceiling. As the owner of the barn and sponsor of the event, Waverly Sales Company was ordered to pay over $230,000 to the plaintiff.   In the Ohio case of Smith vs. Landfair, Mr. Landfair was knocked down by a horse he was unloading after a passing wagon spooked the animal. Ms. Smith, the stable manager, rushed to help Landfair, but was kicked and severely injured. She filed a personal injury suit against Landfair for exposing her to an untrained animal and lacking control over his horse. The case was dismissed based on the Ohio immunity statute. On appeal, it was ruled that Ms. Smith was not an equine activity “spectator,” and had the right to damages. But the state supreme court reversed that decision, noting that Smith had purposefully placed herself in an area of equine activity. The court also ruled that the state’s “good Samaritan” law, which gives citizens who render aid to others the right to sue for damages if they are injured in the process, was negated in this instance by the equine immunity statute. However, the court ordered the lower court to reconsider the case and determine if Mr. Landfair had “wantonly” exposed Ms. Smith to a dangerous animal, creating the possibility of damages.   In the 2009 case of Beggs vs. Griffith, Mr. Griffith allowed a neighbor to temporarily board horses on his property, which happened to be for sale. Melody Beggs was touring the Griffith property as a potential buyer when something spooked the horses. The animals ran into Beggs, injuring her. Beggs sued Griffith, citing the Illinois Animal Control Act, which imposes liability on the “owner” of an animal that injures a person who did not provoke the animal and has a legal right to be in the vicinity. Though Griffith was not the owner of the horses, the courts found that he was responsible for their “control” at the time of the incident, and awarded damages to Ms. Beggs.   Be aware that the same laws that protect you from liability may limit your ability to pursue suits against others. An example of this is seen in the decision in the case of Shelly vs. Stepp. Mr. Shelly was injured when a horse he was exercising at a racetrack collided with another horse. Shelly sued the track owner. But despite California’s lack of an Equine Activity Immunity Act, the court dismissed the case under a much broader assumption of risk doctrine, finding that: “racehorses are by their nature difficult to control….” In the Texas decision of Johnson vs. Smith, Gregory Stewart Johnson worked as an independent contractor for Charles Smith. Johnson was bitten in the face while leading a stallion. Though the courts ruled the immunity statute applied, the appeals court ordered the lower court to reconsider the issue of whether or not the owner had properly informed Mr. Johnson that the stallion was dangerous.   Some key takeaways emerge from case law. First, any non-professional who places him or herself in an area such as the paddock or winner’s circle or the backside of a Thoroughbred racetrack is likely to be viewed as knowingly accepting a high level of risk, even in states that do not have EALAs. However, if you are in charge of a horse, you could still be held responsible for harm to such individuals, despite the fact that the state has a EALA and you do not own the animal.   Second, you must protect yourself and your business with commercial equine liability insurance. Find an agent who is experienced in this specialty and represents reputable companies. Learn the details of your coverage. Do not fall for “fig leaf” policies that sound good and charge low premiums but offer little in the way of effective coverage.   Third, if you are not already incorporated, look into doing so. Incorporation often expands liability protection and shields personal property, such as your home, from professional liability. Discuss the advantages with an experienced attorney and follow through accordingly.   Fourth, knowledge is power. It is important to thoroughly question an owner regarding possible issues with any horse you train. If a horse has significant issues, you should inform anyone working with the horse, as well as members of the public who may encounter the animal, of all risks beyond those typically viewed as inherent in being around horses.   Finally, remember that as in so many areas of life, common sense is your best defense. Be professional. Respect your co-workers, the public, and the animals you train. Prepare for the unexpected. You will not only lower your risk of liability, you will increase the demand for your skills.
If a horse gets out of control and causes injury on the backside, in the paddock, or winner’s circle, who is liable? You, as the trainer? The owner? The track? All of the above?

Tom was brimming with confidence as he and the groom led his hottest prospect into the winner’s circle following a win in an allowance race on the turf.

An experienced trainer, Tom was sure that everyone’s hard work would pay off, and it had. But in a matter of moments, his excitement and exuberance turned into concern. In addition to horses, grooms, and trainers, the winner’s circle was crowded with excited and exuberant spectators, many of whom appeared to have spent little or no time around horses. Tom knew that group ticket packages often included photos in the winner’s circle. He appreciated the importance of promoting the sport and creating new fans. But this seemed like too much.

Tom, the groom, and their horse were soon surrounded by excited guests. The trainer and the groom warned people not to get too close. They tried to be polite and answer questions as the visitors snapped pictures with smartphones. Unfortunately, one would-be fan didn’t realize his flash was on, and three bright bursts of light erupted just a few feet from the horse’s face. The Thoroughbred spun and kicked the man in the chest, sending him crashing to the ground. Tom and the groom managed to get the horse under control quickly to prevent additional injuries. The EMTs arrived and rushed the man to the hospital.

Tom’s big day literally ended in a flash. A few weeks later, he was served legal papers. The injured man was suing him for negligence.

The situation I have just described is hypothetical. However, the legal implications are very real. As a trainer, you are responsible for large, powerful, and often high-strung animals in a variety of situations; situations that are far more fluid and complex than a casual observer could possibly realize. If a horse gets out of control and causes injury on the backside, in the paddock, or winner’s circle, who is liable? You, as the trainer? The owner? The track? All of the above?

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