University of Vermont AAHS

LITIGATION CORNER: Multi-Use Facilities Revisited

By Jan Dawson

[reproduced from Winter 2003 Caution:Horses, Volume 8, No. 3]

Several years ago in a Florida case, Bartolini v. Royal Palm Polo, et. al. a jury accepted the argument that if one were to have a non-horse activity imbedded in an area involving a horse activity, that it was necessary to protect the participants in the non-horse activity from possible loose horses.

The types of protections that were suggested were warnings that could be printed on tickets if there were tickets, signs and, most importantly, physical barriers to prevent the horses from being able to reach the participants in the non-horse activity.

There is also often the possibility of scheduling the two activities on different days.

The jury verdict in the Bartolini case was slightly more than the plaintiff’s settlement offer several years and many thousands of dollars in legal fees earlier, which demonstrates the potential benefit of good faith settlement negotiations. Successful settlement negotiations can be a great savings of resources for all concerned. When that opportunity is missed or dismissed it can be a costly experience for all.

A more recent case involved a multi-year, high school, class reunion held at the same time as a large horse show. Both activities were held at a fairly large, government-owned fairgrounds.

The class reunion involved several thousand participants and, as with those in the Bartolini case, they had not come to see horses, were given no warnings, were not told to stay out of the horse areas even though no barrier separated the two activities. At the critical location the two activities shared a common but open boundary.

A serious, additional problem at the fairgrounds was the fact that at area of the common boundary there were an estimated several thousand people gathered in a tightly packed area where all the beverages and food were being sold. The horse show participants had been told not to go there because that concession area was for the class reunion people only. No admonitions were given to the reunion people about not going to the show or the immediately adjacent stable area.

From the beginning the show officials were extremely worried about the proximity of the class reunion. The show manager had believed that the activities would be farther removed from the show rather than juxtaposed.

To make matters worse, an unseasonable torrential rainstorm that made the main arena unusable for a considerable time marred the show. The warm-up ring became the main ring and then there was no warm-up. The grounds were dotted with trees making warm-up there difficult if not impossible.

When the rain came, one would think that the facility manager with about 20 years experience at this location would have recognized the potential problems and come running on the double. He was nowhere to be found – unless one looked for him in the reunion festivities since it was his reunion as well. But he did not come.

One exhibiter, an experienced trainer on a seasoned horse, was returning to her stable area when her horse spooked or suddenly froze and lost his footing on the wet grass, falling on her and breaking his own tail. He got up and charged straight ahead which took him bucking and kicking squarely into the middle of the several thousand people. Thirteen people were seriously injured.

What was the problem? The simple answer is lack of a physical barrier between the horses and the people who had no connection with the horses. There is definitely a difference between people who can be assumed to be expecting to see or come into contact with horses and other people. There may be separate categories for people who expect to see horses and people who expect to come into contact with them or to have a close encounter with them.

All the experts in the fairgrounds case agreed that horses spook, that they get loose, that they are unpredictable and that one cannot guarantee that at any time or place any area is safe from a loose horse unless a barrier protects it.

The facts of the fairgrounds case are unusual in that the horse ran into a closely packed crowd. The horse could not have dodged the people once in the crowd nor avoided the people if it got up and bolted since the crowd was too close to where the horse fell.

Does this mean that it will be permissible to not have a barrier between horse activities and non-horse activities if there is sufficient distance between the two activities? Will it be permissible to take the chance of a loose horse charging into an area where people have gathered to participate in a non-horse activity using the reasoning that the distance should give the horse time to change direction or avoid a collision with a person?

The only comparison that makes sense is to trace responsibility for damage done by a loose horse in other situations. Most commercial horse operations whether they are public stables, breeding farms or racetracks, have perimeter fences to make sure that the horses do not get out onto a roadway. This is true no matter how slow the traffic may be on the roadway. People would laugh if someone posted a sign beside the highway saying no horses beyond this point and then failed to put up a perimeter fence.

If we are transporting a horse and unload the horse at a place where the public is exposed to the horse, we probably do this at our peril. If the horse kicks, gets loose and causes a problem or commits any bad act we may be responsible for damages unless there are extenuating circumstances over which we had no control that forced us to be in that situation with the animal.

If we are riding beside the road and get bucked off and our loose horse causes damage we may or may not have a problem. Horses are unpredictable and we cannot always maintain control. If we are riding in an area where it is legal to ride we should be able to assume that someone has contemplated the possibility that these unpredictable animals can unseat riders. That is one reason the horse crossings are marked by caution signs. On the other hand we should be careful about riding a difficult mount in an area with lots of people.

These situations are different than multi-use facilities. Even large fairgrounds contemplate different activities at the same time as their horse activities. Participants in the non-horse activities have often paid some admission for the privilege of entering the fairgrounds. They have a right to expect to be protected from being injured by loose horses as well as horses that have been taken to non-horse areas.

Fairgoers are different now than they were 50 years ago. In the 1950’s people at a county or state fair could be charged with the expectation of seeing horses. They also accepted risk a bit better than the fairgoers of today. In the 1950’s school grounds had metal Jungle Gyms set into asphalt playgrounds. Wearing a cast to school for all the kids to sign was almost a right of passage.

Fairgoers today may know no more about horses than what they have seen on TV and they may not even like westerns. These fairgoers may not be expecting to see horses. If they do see or come into contact with anything they will expect the risk to be the modern, “Disneyland” type risk, a thrill but not a real risk.

 “Old Sparky really takes care of the kids.” “These horses really know their jobs and wouldn’t hurt anybody.” “These are show horses and they are used to all this. They won’t spook.” This, unfortunately, may be the mentality of some of the horse people. Most trainers understand that things can go wrong with any horse really quickly and try to be prepared but at a show they cannot control everything.

 “I thought these were trained horses. I had no idea they could hurt anyone.”  This is often the attitude of the person at the nearby activity who knew the horses were close just because she saw them. This person is amazed by an accident because these are trained horses.

 “I don’t know where it came from. We were just waiting for the Wiener Dog Race when I looked up and this horse comes galloping through the middle of everything.” This person may not know there are horses anywhere around. The family came to the fair to watch the Weiner Dog Races and play some of the other games. They weren’t expecting horses.

It makes sense to fence the horse activity in as completely as possible. Keep the horses inside the barriers. Post warnings that people are entering a horse area and if they hear someone shout the words “Heads Up” or “Loose Horse” it means look out and get out of the way. Horse activity participants should be cautioned to keep their horses inside the barriers.

Keeping the horses away from the non-horse people will solve most of the problems. Warnings will help. Notices on the backs of tickets informing fairgoers of the risks help also.

It should be noted that three weeks after the trial in the fairgrounds case at another horse show at the fairgrounds there was another incident. However, this time there were barriers up and warnings posted all over. There were no injuries this time.

Return to Top of This Page
Return to Litigation Corner Page