How to Understand Equine Liability Laws and Activity Statutes

October 28, 2021

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If you are a horse owner or owner of other farm animals, you may have heard of Equine Liability Laws. Sometimes, we refer to these as Equine Activity Statutes.

Most states in the United States have some form of the Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA). Every state has a different name for the statute. However, most of the time, you’ll just hear it described as an “Equine Activity Statute.” In many states, these can apply to farm animals other than just horses.

But, what is this area of equine law, and why should you care about it? Do these statutes actually provide real protection for horse or farm owners? Keep reading for a breakdown of Equine Liability Laws and Equine Activity Statutes. Including:

What is an Equine Activity Statute, or the “Equine Activity Liability Act”?

Equine Liability Laws are laws that limit liability for injuries (or even death) related to horses or other farm animals. 

In other words, these laws recognize that horse owners can’t control all horse behavior. Sometimes, accidents happen!

A quick legal lesson: in the past, liability for injuries related to horses was based purely on what equine lawyers refer to as “tort law”. Usually, negligence.

However, over time, many states realized that this isn’t quite fair to the owners of large animals like horses. After all, horses are large animals with their own brains and decision making capabilities. Holding the owner responsible for all of the accidents that could happen didn’t seem fair. 

 To protect horse farm or farm animal owners, most states have now passed versions of Equine Activity Statutes to limit the liability of equine owners and other professionals from the risk of injury (or death) of a person riding a horse.

Here’s how equine law treats accidents (and why equine liability law matters)

Here’s a classic example: 

Imagine the most pristine training stable with state of the art equine facilities. Their horses are well-trained, and their riding facilities are top notch in terms of safety. They have taken all of the right steps to make it so; they have warning signs, a safe barn, strong fencing, helmet requirements, and a world class trainer on staff. 

But one day, their trusty school horse spooks. The rider falls off and is hurt. Should the trainer be responsible? 

In this imaginary scenario, the trainer was completely not at fault, so it wouldn’t be fair for the trainer to be fully responsible, right?

After all, the rider chose to get on the horse, and riding a horse is inherently risky. Equine Activity Statutes will protect the trainer in this type of situation, balancing the liability between the rider and the trainer. 

Equine Activity Statutes call this “assumption of the risk”, meaning a person assumes the risk of participating in an activity. Even though they have full knowledge of the risks involved, they decide to ride anyway. Under equine law, “assumption of risk” is typically a defense, but Equine Activity Statutes help to make this more clear.

In summary, states have these equine laws to facilitate equine activities and protect against unnecessary or unfair litigation.

Basically, this is a state’s way of allowing people to engage in inherently risky activities (such as horseback riding) and limiting liability at the same time.

Does the Equine Activity Statute really help horse owners?

In short: yes. Without getting too complicated, equine liability laws are the reason that many insurance companies are willing to cover possible horse-related accidents. Equine Activity Statutes also discourage people from suing. 

Unfortunately, as you might know from experience, we live in a litigious society. People sue each other all the time. Equine Activity Statutes help dissuade people from suing for the wrong reasons.

Lawsuits that aren’t supported by law are obviously harder to win. They’re also extremely expensive to fight, so most lawyers do not take them on. 

Using our example with the trainer above, this would mean that the rider couldn’t just hire a lawyer and sue the trainer for everything she’s worth.

If the trainer complied with the statute, the rider wouldn’t have much of a case against her. Or, good chances of finding a lawyer willing to take it on.

If a lawsuit is filed, but the person getting sued is protected by the statute, the case will most likely be thrown out very quickly.

Note: Check YOUR state’s Equine Activity Statute

As we’ve said, each state’s variation of the Equine Activity Statute is different. For example, Oklahoma calls it the “Oklahoma Livestock Activities Liability Limitation Act” ( 76 Okl. St. Ann. § 50.1 – 50.4).

In Oklahoma, the Act isn’t just restricted to horses, but covers livestock as well (“any cattle, bison, hog, sheep, goat, equine livestock, including but not limited to animals of the families bovidae, cervidae and antilocapridae or birds of the ratite group”).

 However a farmer, rancher, or other farm animal owner who did not know about this statute, wouldn’t know that it also states that the person who allows the interaction with the animal (in our example above, the trainer), has a responsibility to provide equipment or tack suitable for riding.

If in our example, the trainer knowingly allowed the student to ride with a broken saddle, the law would not protect her. 

The law also says that the trainer must “make a reasonable effort to determine the ability of the participant to manage the particular livestock based upon the participant’s representations of such participant’s ability.”

So, for example, if the trainer knew that the rider had never ridden before, and put the rider on a dangerous horse, the statute probably wouldn’t protect her. Many of these state statutes will require things like posting proper warning signs and more, so it’s critical to make sure you’re in compliance. 

 

The takeaway: Just because your state may have an Equine Activity Statute, this does not mean that you have complete immunity from the law. First, as you can see from our Oklahoma example, there are stipulations. Second, you can still be liable for other areas of law, such as gross negligence or willful misconduct. While this area of equine law does try to facilitate equine-related sports, each state has its own interpretation. Read yours so that you can be in compliance. 

In conclusion,

In order to limit your liability as a horse owner, start with everything we discussed in The Horse Owner’s Complete Guide to Liability. Make sure you’ve taken all possible steps to provide a safe environment. This includes putting the correct warning signs up around your premises.

And remember, your state’s statute may require specific wording. Don’t just assume that your state’s Equine Activity Statute will protect you.

Next, make sure you’re complying with your state’s specific equine laws by checking your state statute. Here is a great website that summarizes each and every state’s Equine Activity Statute and lists some of the requirements. Finally, and most importantly, make sure that you use strong liability release forms that are drafted by an actual lawyer. This is one of the most important steps that every horse owner should take to limit their equine-related liability.

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