Whether you own one horse or ten, chances are you've been asked by a friend or visitor to let them ride. While this seems like a friendly gesture, you may be opening yourself up to a potential lawsuit. Horses are powerful animals. Even if you follow all the rules of horsemanship, you can never predict a horse's actions - or the actions of a rider. A plastic bag blowing by, a panic attack while riding, or even a sneeze can set a disaster in motion.
For example, in 2006, Shellie Maraman Laws was attending a party arranged by a friend and former supervisor, James Pierson. During this party, Pierson was offering horse rides. Laws became intoxicated, and accepted. While trying to mount the horse, she fell, sustaining injuries that required medical attention and forced her to miss work.
She filed a lawsuit in 2007, stating that the homeowner, even with home insurance, was negligent in allowing her to attempt to mount a horse while intoxicated. This case is just one example of a liability lawsuit being brought against a horse owner. Since Pierson was an attorney, it's patently clear that a lawsuit can happen to anyone.
Are you liabile for injury?
If you are allow someone to ride your horse on your property, and they're injured while riding, are you liable? If someone is on your property with their child, and the child spooks the horse and sustains an injury, such as a kick or bite, can you be sued?
According to Paul Martin, CAP State Association Liaison, the answer is a resounding "Yes." In today's litigious society, anyone can sue anybody for anything. Whether they win the lawsuit, however, is up to the courts.
Typically, when you have a horse on your property, and someone is injured by the animal, your homeowners insurance may cover it. However, if those injuries are major, you may reach the limit on your homeowners policy, and you will be held liable for the remainder of the costs. If a lawsuit occurs, you may be facing a personal injury or liability lawsuit.
It is crucial that, as a horse owner, you review the liability limitations in your state. The limitations for each state differ, so be sure to find your state's law. Some states require the posting of signs, some require signature of a liability waiver, and some require both, so it's incredibly important to make sure you dot your I's and cross your T's before letting someone near your horses. While this doesn't guarantee that a lawsuit won't happen, it will help your chances of being held not liable immensely.
If an injury occurs on your property, you may find yourself at the wrong end of a lawsuit. It is up to the court to decide who is liable or negligent in the case. There are two types of negligence: negligence and gross negligence. In the case of regular negligence, if you saddled your horse and forgot to tighten the cinch and the saddle slipped to the side, causing a fall, you would be seen as negligent.
If you saddled the horse and were using an obviously broken saddle, which caused a fall, your actions would be termed grossly negligent.
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How likely is an accident?
Unfortunately, horse accident statistics are shockingly high. Many professional organizations rate the occurence of accidents on horseback by hours ridden. In a study by Cambridge University, they found the following:
- One injury in 100 hours of leisure riding (trail riding, etc.)
- One injury in five hours of amateur racing over jumps (steeple chases, hunter/jumpers)
- One injury in one hour of cross-country events (three-day events)
Contusions are the most common type of injuries sustained while horseback riding. While head injuries are not as common, they do carry the highest mortality rate. In order to protect yourself from the potential of a lawsuit you should always:
- Follow safe horsemanship rules
- Post your personal rules (i.e., no children near horses, no bareback riding, etc.)
- Require that all riders wear helmets and protective gear, regardless of experience
- Play it safe when matching up a horse and rider
- Know your state's liability limitations, and follow them
- Have enough homeowers insurance to cover a catastrophic injury
Another way to make sure you have enough liability coverage is opting to have an umbrella policy in place. Paul states that umbrella policies are insurance policies that afford you additional liability coverage. They are typically available in $1 million increments.
These policies are very valuable, since they raise the liability limits of other policies as well, such as auto, boat, RV and homeowners insurance policies. Our network has many different options when it comes to insuring a homeowner or property owner from damages, and having the right amount of insurance in place can help keep you calm and safe in case an injury happens on your property.
One important note: These liability laws and insurance recommendations do not apply to businesses, or those that are charging/bartering for rides.