“What’s Your Sign—Colorado Revised Statute 13-21-119—Equine Activity Liability Laws—warning signs on the equine professional liability.” Republished with Permission from Horse Connection Magazine – Legal Lead, September 2005.
What’s Your Sign?
BY MARC C. PATOILE, ATTORNEY AT LAW
Exposure to liability is the foremost concern that persons involved in equestrian activities or business enterprises express to lawyers. Concerns about being sued are probably followed closely by concerns that open spaces for equestrian activities are being encroached upon by development. In an increasingly litigious world, we should have a healthy concern about liability. But being overly fearful about equine activity liability is probably unwarranted, at least in the vast majority of states which offer some statutory protections. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And there’s more to limiting your liability than just posting a sign.
There are two categories of laws that affect liability for injuries or damage incurred by equestrians. The first category is written specifically to address liability concerns around horses, in an effort to promote the numerous economic and personal benefits from equine activities. The second is to encourage land owners to grant equestrians and other recreational users access to their land without inheriting an increased level of liability.
As for the first category, most equestrians have heard of laws limiting the liability of equine professionals and event organizers, commonly referred to as equine activity liability laws. Unfortunately, there is much misinformation about what these laws actually do and what they don’t. They are generally designed to limit, and not eliminate, the liability of equine professionals, event organizers, and others in case of injury or death resulting from the risks inherent in participating in equestrian activities.
The vast majority of states have adopted some form of equine activity liability laws. Most commonly, some laws provide limited immunity, while others provide a bar to suit. Most equine limited liability laws exclude racing activities from the protection of the statute, almost all require posting of very specifically worded notices, and some require the execution of a release form. Because there is no uniformity among the various state laws, equestrians need to educate themselves as to the terms of the law in their state. In Colorado, the law provides a limited statutory defense for negligent conduct, as some inherent risks are involved in equine activities. The Colorado law provides that an equine professional shall post warning signs and any written contracts shall also contain the warning. Colorado Revised Statute § 13-21-119 contains the exact requirements of the warning. Signs can be ordered through the Colorado Horse Council at www.cohoco.com/liability_signs.htm. Equine professionals should ensure that any contracts also include the proper warning.
Even when the signs and contracts contain the required warning, an equine professional is still not completely exempt from liability in Colorado. The Colorado law is designed to limit inherent liability and grant limited immunity from civil liability, as horses can react unpredictably to stimulus and can hurt people in the process, even if everyone is careful. However, the statute is not an absolute bar to the filing of a suit so one must still use common sense. For instance, Colorado courts have held that the statute does not limit suit against a person who knowingly provides faulty tack. The courts have also held a professional liable for providing a horse and failing to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the rider to engage safely in the equine activity and determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular animal based on the participant’s representations of his ability. A person who controls land with known dangerous latent conditions for which warning signs have not been conspicuously posted, may also be held responsible. Any person who commits willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant, or intentionally injures the participant may also be held liable. One recent case that was allowed to proceed to trial involved the failure of a wrangler to properly supervise and remove a terrified young rider from a horse on a guided trip.
And lest you think that these laws only apply to commercial stables or professional instructors, read your state’s statute carefully. In many states, the sponsor of an equine activity may be an individual and there is no requirement that the participant pay to participate in the activity, so lending your friend a horse to go on a trail ride with you or even lending her a saddle to use on her own horse may expose you to some liability.
As for the second category of laws, those encouraging landowners to allow recreational access without increased liability, the landowner protections are built into our Colorado statute. In other states, there are separate laws or no laws in this regard.
Contacting your attorney before a problem happens is your best bet. Get a knowledgeable opinion on how to limit your exposure under your state’s laws. For most professionals, such advice will include any discussion of necessary sign requirements and a good liability release form, at a minimum. Most importantly, the advice will probably entail a discussion on ways to further limit liability by forming a corporation or limited liability company under which the equestrian activities are conducted. With proper planning and common sense, equine activity liability should not keep you up at night, whether you are a professional, landowner or participant. If you don’t already know, it is important to find out your sign (or if you need a sign in the first place).
Marc C. Patoile is a shareholder with the regional law firm of Folkestad & Fazekas, P.C., with offices in Castle Rock, Colorado. He can be reached at 303-688-3045 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is provided for informational purposes only, is not intended to provide any legal advice, nor is it intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Folkestad & Fazekas, P.C. You should not act or rely on any information in this article without seeking the advice of an attorney.