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Liability Releases - What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You

I’ve heard the saying that a release "isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on" more than I care to think about. The general perception is that a release will not be enforced in a court of law and will not protect an equine professional from incurring potentially large monetary liability. However, when written correctly, releases can protect and serve as a defense against a potential claim or lawsuit.

I like to think of liability releases as the second line of defense. If you qualify as an equine professional under the Indiana Equine Activity Statute, you will be afforded immunity from liability associated with an injury or death resulting from participation in an equine activity. This is your first line of defense and you should ensure that you familiarize yourself with the statute and do everything required to avail yourself of the protections provided under the statute. However, there are certain circumstances when an equine professional will not be entitled to immunity under the statute. For example, if you are negligent in assigning a lesson horse to a rider, you will not be protected by the statute. Thus, it is imperative to ensure that you have additional precautions in place to protect your farm and/or business from potential liability in the event you don’t qualify for immunity under the statute. Liability releases may serve as this second line of defense by limiting liability for injuries caused by your negligence or from other circumstances not covered by the statute.

It is true that many courts have disfavored liability releases (also known as exculpatory clauses) because they require an individual to waive claims for future injuries that may occur. However, what most people don’t know is that courts are willing to enforce and uphold a liability release when it is written in clear, specific language that allows the individual waiving liability to understand what rights are being released. In other words, the liability release shouldn’t be so full of legal language that only an attorney can understand it. Rather, the liability release has to be easily understandable by non-lawyers.

In 2006, the Indiana Court of Appeals (the second highest court in the state) specifically addressed the enforceability of a liability release in an equine situation. The court dismissed a lawsuit filed against an Indiana equestrian center by a rider who was injured when mounting her horse before a lesson because rider had signed a liability release releasing the equestrian center from liability related to her participation in an equine activity. The liability release contained an explanation of what an equine activity was. The liability release also cautioned that there were risks inherent in the nature of activities dealing with horses and gave examples of some of those risks. The court determined that the language of the liability release specifically waived claims related to the injury incurred by the rider. As a result of the liability release, the court dismissed the claim brought against the equestrian center.

This case is a perfect example of a liability release being worth much more than the paper it’s printed on and should serve as an example to equine professionals throughout Indiana. In order to take advantage of the additional legal protections liability releases have to offer equine professionals and/or individual horse owners, be sure to keep the following in mind:

  • The language in the release should be clear, concise and understandable by the person signing it.
  • The release should specifically address whether the negligence of a party is being released.
  • The importance of the release should be communicated to the party waiving his/her rights and he/she should be instructed to read it carefully.
  • Be wary of form liability releases found online. While a form release may be cheaper, it may end up costing you more in the long run if a court does not enforce it. Courts look to whether the liability release actually addresses the harms which the party waiving his/her rights is potentially subject to. If your release is not specifically tailored to your situation, there is a good chance the court will not enforce it.
  • Understand your release and what you are asking people to sign. If anyone has questions, you should be able to answer them.
  • The liability release should contain the warning language required in equine contracts under the Indiana Equine Activity Statute.
  • Liability releases will not prevent someone from filing a lawsuit against you, so it is important that you maintain appropriate insurance coverage to cover any potential legal fees.
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