Welcome to the first of our new Guest Blogger series – Windhorse Legal! Jo is one of those do-it-all badass women we love to support here at Decidedly Equestrian. A lawyer, an equine professional and active in the non-profit world! She has a unique combination of legal qualifications, work experience, and equine industry involvement as a horse professional.
As horse owners, we enjoy sharing our love of horses, and we sometimes even let our friends ride our horse. What happens if a person is injured while riding your horse on your property? Many factors influence whether you will be held liable for those injuries. A case from England highlights some of the important points to keep in mind. While British law is different from the law we practice here, the case raises some important points to keep in mind.
Ashleigh Harris was 14 years old when she went on a picnic with her boyfriend and his family at their family farm. She had been riding for about a year on her own pony at a local stable. She had never ridden a horse. Her boyfriend’s mother, Rachel Miller, who was new to riding, had recently bought an ex-racehorse. They visited the horse on the picnic, and Ashleigh wound up riding the horse. She trotted the horse in an open field, and the horse began to canter. Ashleigh lost control and fell over the horse’s head. Ashleigh suffered a spinal cord injury and is now paralyzed from the waist down. She sued for compensation for the lifelong medical care she now requires. Miller rejected a settlement offer for the maximum amount under Miller’s “personal liability” coverage, so the case proceeded to trial.
A judge at the High Court in London ruled in Harris’ favor and awarded her more than 3.5 million dollars. In his decision, the judge found that Miller had encouraged Harris to ride the “strong and willful Thoroughbred.” The judge stated that Miller had limited knowledge of Harris’ riding ability but knew she had done more riding than Miller. He said that Miller had made a “serious error of judgment” in buying such a horse because Miller was so inexperienced and that she should have known such a horse would be difficult to ride, even for a competent novice rider. The judge ruled that Miller was an unreliable witness with an implausible explanation for what happened that day. The judge went on to find that Miller exposed Harris to a risk of injury by encouraging her to ride the horse and either condoning or instructing her to trot the horse in an open field for the first time. The judge said it was reasonably foreseeable that the horse would be difficult to control and, in certain conditions, might throw a rider who wasn’t used to riding a horse bred to race and trained to gallop. Miller was only insured for a limited amount, and that amount was not enough to cover the judge’s ruling.
An important factor in this case concerned insurance. It appears from the decision that Miller relied on her homeowner’s insurance and did not have specific equine insurance. Your homeowner’s policy may cover some equine-related activities on your property, but questions can arise concerning what kinds of activity and what level of financial coverage is provided. If you intend to have people engage with horses on your property, you should consult an equine insurance agent and discuss your needs.
You may be thinking that you would be covered if this accident happened on your property because your state has an equine liability statute. Not necessarily. Many of the statutes only apply to equine professionals, which means you may not be covered if you have a horse for fun and that horse injures your friend. In addition, many of the statutes have exceptions to the law. For example, the Massachusetts equine liability statute includes an exception if the horse professional fails to make “reasonable and prudent” efforts to determine if the participant can safely participate in the equine activity. It also states that the equine professional must determine that the participant has the ability to handle the particular equine. Those are factors the UK judge mentioned when he found that Miller should not have encouraged Harris to ride the unruly horse and to trot in an open field.
You may wonder if liability can be avoided or limited if the person riding your horse signs a liability release. It depends on the facts of the specific situation. Generally speaking, a release won’t relieve you of liability if you are negligent in letting someone with little to no experience ride a horse that is not suited for that person. Even a horse professional may still be held liable in that scenario. Many factors come into play such as whether you knew about the person’s level of experience, whether the person was honest about their level of experience, and how much you knew about the horse and the level of rider it required.
Many people simply take care of these potential liability issues by not letting anyone else ride their horse. Your friends will invariably say that they won’t sue you if anything happens. Let your friends know that you aren’t worried about that, but that insurance companies are becoming more active in suing to recover expenses. So if an injury occurs, you may have to deal with a lawsuit from the insurance company concerning your friend’s medical expenses. If your friends insist – and it’s hard to resist sharing our love of our equine partners – you can explore other options, such as finding a local barn where you can ride together.
If you really want to let you friends ride your own horse then get liability insurance that is suited to your specific equine situation. Don’t assume your homeowner’s insurance will protect you. Talk to an equine insurance agent, not just your homeowner’s insurance agent, to get the best protection tailored to your situation. While no insurance can bar a lawsuit from being filed, it can protect you by paying any claim and lawyer’s fees instead of you having to pay out of pocket. This type of insurance is often called Private Horseowner’s Liability Insurance. If you get this kind of insurance, you know you are covered, and you can have fun with your friends and your horses. In addition, consult an equine attorney to discuss the possibility of a liability release and what questions you should ask, as well as steps you should take, to protect yourself.
This blog post is for educational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship. Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation.