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Think You’re Safe? Think Again. Avoiding Liability for Equine Professionals

Many equine activity sponsors and equine professionals post the obligatory warning sign mandated by Indiana’s equine activity liability statute and assume they are immune from any and all liability resulting from the injury or death of a participant involved in an equine activity. However, to gain the full protection of the statute, equine activity sponsors and equine professionals must also include the warning language in contracts relating to certain activities. Furthermore, the statute explicitly carves out five (5) circumstances under which equine activity sponsors and equine professionals cannot benefit from the statutory immunity. It is imperative that equine activity sponsors and equine professionals are aware of and understand the full requirements and exceptions in the statute to fully avail themselves of the protections under the law.

According to Indiana Code § 34-31-5, et. seq., an equine activity sponsor or equine professional is not liable for an injury to or the death of a participant resulting from an inherent risk of equine activities. An “inherent risk of equine activities” is defined to include:

1) the propensity of an equine to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around the equine;
2) the unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to such things as sound, sudden movement, unfamiliar objects, people or other animals;
3) hazards such as surface and subsurface conditions;
4) collisions with other equines or objects; and
5) the potential of a participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to injury to the participant or others, such as failing to maintain control over the animal or not acting within the participant’s ability. Thus, the statute provides broad immunity over many equine-related accidents that could occur.

However, the statute specifically exempts from immunity equine activity sponsors or equine professionals who:

1) provided equipment or tack that was faulty and that caused the injury and knew or should have known that the equipment or tack was faulty;
2) provided the equine and failed to make reasonable and prudent efforts based on the participant’s representations of the participant’s ability to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity and determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular equine;
3) was in lawful possession and control of the land or facilities on which the participant sustained injuries and knew or should have known of the dangerous latent condition that caused the injuries; if warning signs concerning the dangerous latent condition were not conspicuously posted on the land or in the facilities;
4) committed an act or omission that constitutes reckless disregard for the safety of the participant and caused the injury; or
5) intentionally injured the participant.

As a result, it is prudent for all equine activity sponsors and equine professionals to thoroughly inspect all equipment and tack and to document (in writing) all steps taken to make the inspections. Equine activity sponsors and equine professionals should also inspect all land and facilities for dangerous latent conditions and post warning signs, if necessary. Again, any inspections should be carefully documented to defend against a claim by an injured participant that the condition should have been known to the equine activity sponsor and/or equine professional.

Additionally, it is well advised to ensure that all employees, representatives, and agents are adequately trained to assess a participant’s abilities to ride a particular horse. Courts in several states have found that the requirement to assess a participant’s abilities is continuing. That is to say, for example, an instructor would have a continuing responsibility to assess the rider’s abilities throughout the entire lesson, rather than just at the beginning of the lesson.

Finally, equine activity sponsors and equine professionals must include the warning language required by the statute in all written contracts entered into by an equine professional for:

1) the providing of professional services;
2) the providing of instruction; or
3) the rental of equipment, tack or an equine.

Thus, the immunity of the statute will only be available in such instances if the written contract specifically sets forth the warning language provided in the statute, even if the equine professional posted the appropriate warning sign.

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