Horseback riding and other equestrian activities are popular in the New Hampshire, as they are in most areas of the United States. A recent study estimates that equine-related business in the United States is a $102 billion industry.
Equestrian sports can be an enjoyable and fulfilling pursuit. However, horseback riding and other equine activities can also be very dangerous. It’s estimated that over 100,000 people are treated for horse-related injuries each year in the United States. The neck and head are the most common areas of injury. Over 11,000 people per year in the United States suffer traumatic brain injuries due to horse-related activities. Therefore, lawsuits related to horse-caused injuries are common throughout the country.
New Hampshire state law (RSA 508:19) provides broad immunity to equine professionals against certain types of liability. Specifically, the statute declares that “an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or any other person engaged in an equine activity, shall not be liable for an injury or the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities . . . .” The statute goes on to state that “each participant in an equine activity expressly assumes the risk of and legal responsibility for any injury . . . which results from participation in an equine activity.” See RSA 508:19(II).
Similarly to New Hampshire’s Ski Statute (discussed in more detail in these two blogs: Ski Accident Liability in New Hampshire, Can I Sue the Ski Mountain for My Skiing Injury in New Hampshire?), RSA 508:19 recognizes that certain injuries are truly unavoidable, and attempts to protect equine facilities from liability for those types of injuries.
The statute defines “inherent risks of equine activities” as the “dangers and conditions which are an integral part of equine activities.” Specifically, the statute mentions the “propensity of an equine to behave in ways that may result in injury . . . to persons on or around them” and “the unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to such things as sounds, sudden movements, [etc.],” among other things. See RSA 508:19, I(f).
Standing on its own, this immunity provision is so broad that it would cover almost any injury occurring during a horse-related activity, including negligence on the part of an equestrian center or equine professional. However, the law carves out several exceptions to the immunity rule. An equine professional may be held liable if, among other things they: (1) provided faulty equipment or tack that caused the injury (and knew or should have known that said equipment was faulty); (2) provided a horse and failed to sufficiently determine whether the rider/participant had the requisite ability to safely ride the horse; and (3) intentionally injured the participant or committed “an act or omission that constitutes willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant.”
So, in order to survive a Motion for Summary Judgment based on RSA 508:19, a lawsuit’s plaintiff (such as a rider thrown off a horse) will typically need to show that one of the five exceptions in the statute (three are listed above) apply.
The most commonly-invoked exception is likely the one labeled “(2)” above: that the immunity statute will not apply if the equine professional supplied a horse but failed to determine whether the participant had the ability to safely ride the horse. However, note that the actual language of the statute only requires the equine professional to “make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant,” not to guarantee the participant’s safety.
The most flexible exception may be number “(3)” above, which allows liability if the equine professional “commits an act or omission that constitutes willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant, and that act or omission caused the injury.” Because the “act or omission” is not limited to a specific type of conduct, the exception could theoretically be applied to many different situations. However, in order to avail himself of this exception, a litigant would need to demonstrate conduct arising to the level of “wanton disregard”: that is, “recklessness.” Recklessness is a difficult standard to meet, as it requires much more evidence of culpability than ordinary negligence.
There is one more possible exception to immunity, which is somewhat hidden because it is not included with the list of other exceptions in the statute: the statute’s definition of “inherent risks” includes a situation where an injury is caused by the negligence of another rider (such as another participant trying to do maneuvers beyond their ability, which causes someone else’s injury). See RSA 508:19(f)(5). However, the statute specifically states that an injury does not result from an “inherent risk” if the other rider’s negligence could “be reasonably foreseen and the equine professional or sponsor has failed to take any corrective measures.” Id. Since the statute only provides protection for inherent risks, this is another possible way around the statute.
Many equestrian facilities and stables also require participants to sign liability releases before participating in classes or competitions. Liability releases are sometimes known as “waivers” or “exculpatory contracts.” As explained in more detail in a previous blog, Liability Releases And Waivers, liability releases are ostensibly “generally prohibited” in New Hampshire. However, courts in New Hampshire enforce liability releases in many, if not most, situations.
The most straightforward way to defeat a liability release is if the language of the release itself is unclear or ambiguous. It must clearly and specifically disclaim liability for the kind of conduct alleged (usually negligence). Courts will interpret the language of the waiver strictly against the party seeking to enforce the release.
In Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by a horse and sustained an injury. Prior to participating in the equestrian activity, she had signed a liability release. The release stated that the participant released Loon Mountain (the defendant) from “any and all liability for personal injury to myself resulting from the negligence of the defendant, to include negligence in selection, adjustment or maintenance of any horse.” The plaintiff sued for negligence. The New Hampshire Supreme Court held that although the language of the liability release specifically waived liability for negligence, because it included a modifying clause referencing “negligence in selection, adjustment, or maintenance,” the release was only effective against those specific categories of negligence. Because the plaintiff had alleged negligence of a different kind, the release was not enforceable against her. This case is an example of how strictly New Hampshire courts will interpret the language of a liability release.
One last note: as explained in the previous blog post, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has not yet decided whether a parent can sign a liability release on behalf of their minor child. Most states around the country have ruled that a parental release is unenforceable. There are also two federal court decisions applying New Hampshire law that have reached the same conclusion. This is especially important with regard to equine activities, where many of the participants are young.
If you’ve sustained a personal injury caused by a horse or related to equestrian activities, and would like a free consultation, please contact one of Welts, White & Fontaine’s personal injury attorneys, call (603) 883-0797 or contact us here. We can help you evaluate whether you have a viable claim, and have the tools and knowledge necessary to obtain a favorable settlement or verdict. We handle most personal injury matters on a contingency fee basis.
Author: Israel F. Piedra
This blog is intended for informational use only. The information contained herein should not be construed as offering legal advice or a legal opinion or forming an attorney-client relationship.