University of Vermont AAHS

NON-PROFESSIONAL EXHIBITOR’S LIABILITY WHEN HIS HORSE MISBEHAVES

by
Jan Dawson
President of AAHS

[reproduced from Summer 2002 Caution:Horses]

When a horse misbehaves at a horse show, it is usually overlooked if there is no lasting damage. When there is lasting damage, such as a serious human injury, a chain reaction is started to find the responsible party.

In the states without an equine activity statute the amateur exhibitor or parent of a minor exhibitor has a duty to behave as a reasonable person in similar circumstances. The horse must have been ridden or handled in a reasonable and prudent manner. The duty is the same to all whether they are spectators, friends, other exhibitors, staff, or employees. A rider has a duty to control his mount within reason, which presents problems since horses are unpredictable and riders cannot always control them within the time or distance necessary to prevent an accident.

The question that must be answered is this: In light of all the circumstances, was the non-professional doing a reasonable thing when the accident took place? Was he managing his mount in a prudent and safe manner? 

However, in the states that have enacted an equine activity statute the rules may be different. Some states offer special immunity if the injured person is a spectator who has wandered into an area where spectators are not permitted, for example an area marked “exhibitors only beyond this point.” Some statutes offer immunity with regard to all spectators and some offer it regarding none.

Although equine activity statutes do not usually address negligence, some do list as an inherent risk of participating in an equine activity another participant’s negligent handling of his own mount. Some also list as an inherent risk a collision with another mounted participant. When actions are listed as an inherent risk it gives a defense to liability. This would appear to be an immunity for an exhibitor who lost control of his or her horse, which was probably the intent of the legislature. But if it can be shown that the bad behavior that caused the accident had occurred before and was known or should have been known to the exhibitor or owner, he may then not gain the benefit of the statute, if it existed in his state in that form.

            If the exhibitor who collided with or otherwise lost control of his mount causing an accident had lost control on previous occasions, it might put the incident into one of the exceptions contained in many of the equine activity statutes. This exception is for “willful and wanton disregard for human safety.” In a state without an equine activity statute this is the language of gross negligence and punitive damages.

If the state did not have an equine activity statute, the exhibitor may find himself facing a suit claiming the animal had “dangerous propensities,” which could invoke strict liability, a costly proposition, indeed.

            In most cases when the amateur exhibitor has entrusted the horse and/or the minor exhibitor to a professional trainer, the responsibility passes to the professional. Yet if the owner has failed to disclose information about prior bad actions of the horse, the liability will shift back to the owner. The equine activity statute will not protect anyone who is trying to exhibit a horse with a dangerous history and is attempting to do so without making the proper disclosures.

             There are many opinions about retraining such horses. If the problem never appears again the retraining worked; if the problem happens again, it didn’t. And if is does, it is still a horse with a bad history. The failure to disclose such a history could have serious consequences.

With the possible exception of an “as is” sale at a public auction where the horse is sold with “no story,” that is with no representation made whatsoever, full disclosure is required to be made for all sales. This makes it extremely important for everyone to take extra care to make certain that his horse does not get a bad history because it is something that the horse may carry for the rest of its life.  



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