The Tangled Web of Potential Liability at Horse Shows

16 02 2015

Many of us are familiar with the scenario of a local lesson stable which teaches group riding lessons and occasionally takes a group of kids to a local horse show. Some of the kids bring their own horses, some bring horses they have leased from the stable and some kids bring horses leased from elsewhere. All the horses pile on stable-owned or parent-owned or rider-owned trailers and the kids pile in cars (or perhaps the cab of the truck trailering the horses) and everyone heads for the showgrounds.

These are the types of scenarios which make for the most fun, camaraderie and learning for the kids and their trainers and give the riders a chance to finally demonstrate in a public way all the riding skills which they have (hopefully) mastered. Shows are very exciting for everyone involved. Everyone may not get a ribbon, but everyone will learn and work hard and usually have at least a little bit of fun if not a lot of fun. Unfortunately, these typically wonderful scenarios are also the scenarios which can turn scary very quickly and can make for the most complex liability determinations in the equine legal world.

Why is a show scenario complicated from a legal perspective? Well, because so many different people are at the show in so many different roles and most of those people have valuable property with them at the show, whether it is a horse or expensive saddle, nice trailer or other items of value. Every person at the showgrounds (and some not at the showgrounds) has a “duty of care” to which the law expects them to adhere and each person might owe different duties to different people. Which duties are owed to whom by whom is determined by what role he or she is playing in the show environment. Is the person an exhibitor/participant? Is the person a show manager? A groom? Parents of exhibitors? Spectators? Trainers? Stable owners? Trailer drivers? Janitorial or cafeteria staff? Siblings of exhibitors? The list goes on and on.

Why all this fuss and focus on all these individuals? Why do we care? We care because when something happens at a horse show which causes damage to a person or property and that person or owner of that property wants to be compensated for that loss, the law gives us rules about how to determine who is responsible for that loss. And when you have a scenario such as a horse show where so many different people are present for so many different reasons, the legal rules often overlap or conflict and can get extremely confusing.

For example, let’s say that there is a 3 year old boy Jimmy sitting on a lead line pony named Misty waiting to show. Show management did not anticipate the high number of exhibitors who showed up and so the classes are crowded and moving slowly. The lead line class is the last class of the day. Jimmy’s parents put yawning Jimmy on Misty about 10pm and he is then standing in line with other exhibitors before his class enters the ring. A little girl Sally on a leased quarter horse named Red is waiting to go into the class ahead of Jimmy and realizes she has forgotten her gloves. Sally asks one of her friends Kim to hold Red while Sally runs into the barn to get her gloves. Unbeknownst to Kim, Red is an escape artist. Sensing a golden opportunity for freedom, Red yanks his reins out of Kim’s hand and takes off, bumping into Misty, who becomes annoyed and bucks. Jimmy falls off and breaks his arm. Red is happy as a lark running free and eventually ends up on neighboring property owned by private landowners Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Mr. Smith sees Red calmly grazing in his front yard and goes outside to try to catch him, despite the fact that Mr. Smith is not a horse person and does not know anything about handling horses. He just loves animals and does not want Red to get hurt because he can see that he is loose in an unfenced area. Although well-intentioned, Mr. Smith lunges at Red in an effort to grab his reins and in doing so startles Red, who takes off again and drags Mr. Smith a few feet, causing injuries. Red keeps going and runs into the road in front of the neighbor’s house and gets hit by a man on a motorcycle. Red and the motorcyclist are both injured and the motorcycle is totaled.

What a mess! But this type of scenario is not at all unusual, believe it or not. It would take me ten pages to go through all the potential liabilities for the various people who are involved here, so I will spare you the in-depth analysis. But here are a few things to think about:

The broadest interpretation of liability might say that the show management is responsible for everything because they were not adequately prepared for the number of folks who showed up for the show. Some would say they should have had a registration deadline a few days before the show started so that they could line up adequate personnel to keep the show moving. And maybe capped the number of exhibitors to an amount they could comfortably manage. Should they have moved the lead line class to earlier in the day given the young age of those participants? Because if the show hadn’t run late, then Sally would not have been standing around so long and Red and Misty would not have been so grouchy and willing to misbehave and Jimmy wouldn’t have gotten hurt and Red would not have run away. But is tracing all that back to show management an unreasonably long stretch in order to assign fault?

Perhaps Mr. Smith should be liable for Red’s and the motorcyclist’s injuries and motorcycle damage because he lunged at the peacefully grazing Red, spooking him and causing him to run into the road? If he had not lunged at Red, perhaps he could have peacefully collected Red’s reins and led him back to the showgrounds?
Is Sally liable for not telling Kim that Red was an escape artist so Kim would know to hang on to Red extra tight? Or is Red’s owner liable for leasing a horse who likes to escape?

Are Jimmy’s parents liable for his injuries because they used using poor judgment in allowing him to stay up so late for a lead line class and thus surrounding a tired and cranky little boy with lots of tired and cranky horses?
Was Sally’s trainer liable for not being on site with Sally to hold Red while Sally went for her gloves?

You see how these speculations can go on and on. It is very difficult sometimes to parce out where the liability should rest for any given harm which occurred.
So what is the lesson to be learned from this example? First, be sure you have good health, liability and property insurance (on you, your kids, your horse, your trailer and other property) in place and paid up in case something bad happens at a show – TO you, your horse, your child or your student or BY you, your horse, your child or your student. Second, make sure you only work with reputable, insured trainers and attend shows managed by reputable show managers in safe, well-maintained locations owned by trustworthy people, companies or governmental entities. Third, while at the show keep an eye on your horses, your children, your trainer and yourself for signs of stress and fatigue and when you see it, respect it and remove yourself, your child, your horse and your property from situations where they may endanger themselves or others as a result of this stress and fatigue. Use common sense to be careful and remember that the health and safety of humans and horses is paramount to and more important than any ribbon or trophy. Good luck at the shows and be safe!

If you get into a bind and need assistance or just want to ask some questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at dburch@rl-law.com. I often will answer a short and simple question for free if you are in North Carolina and I have time and know the answer off the top of my head! Or often know good equine lawyers in other states if you need a referral. If you don’t hear back from me quickly, it’s not because I don’t love you or think you have a great question or because I don’t know the answer (usually), I’m probably just really busy and haven’t had a chance to email back. And you can always buy the first hour of my time for $250 (my usual hourly rate for 2015 is $350). Lots of folks will save up all their equine (and some corporate or real estate) legal questions and short documents and sit with me for an hour and we will do as much as we can during that hour and it’s only $250. You can check out my Twitter feed @nchorselawyer as well as our firm’s Equine Law Group web page at http://www.rl-law.com/equine if you’re interested, and yes, in addition to providing what I hope are interesting and informative stories, this blog and the Twitter feed referenced above are also (in one way or another, I guess) an advertisement for legal services.

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