This article discusses the trends in state Equine Activity Liability Statutes (EALA). Included are the general provisions of EALA statutes, policy reasons behind their adoption, exceptions under the statutes, and recent cases that interpret these acts.
I. General Purpose and Scope of the Law
Historically, under the common law, liability for harm to persons by horses were determined based upon traditional tort law concepts, which included "assumption of the risk" and comparative negligence. However, forty-four states have made modifications to the common law by adopting the Equine Activity Liability Act as an effort to limit the amount of liability equine owners, sponsors, and professionals would be at risk for the injury or death of an individual by a horse.
The Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA) is an umbrella term referring to the various statutes that have been adopted by most states in order to facilitate the occurrence of equine activities. The EALA accomplishes this task by limiting the amount of financial liability associated with such activities. While each state has its own variation on the terms and stipulations of the act, the underlying intention of the EALA is to encourage equine activities by limiting the civil (tort) ability of those individuals harmed at equine events and activities to sue the individuals who organize or sponsor the events. The reasoning supporting this law is that equine activities provide a variety of benefits to the states in which they occur;  however, many risks of injury are involved with such activities due to the unpredictability of any equine’s behavior.
Over the past couple decades and prior to the adoption of equine liability laws, many states underwent a change in their tort laws, converting from contributory liability, which banned many frivolous cases on the theory of "assumption of risk," to comparative liability. Contributory liability is a theory that if the injured party contributed at all to the occurrence of his or her injury, then he or she would be banned from recovering any compensation. Comparative liability allows the injured party to recover percentage of compensation, even if he or she was partially responsible for his or her own injury. This tort reform resulted in an increase in litigation because more people believed that, under the comparative liability system, they would be able to obtain some amount of compensation for their injury, even if they were partially to blame for their own injury. Consequently, this increase in litigation led to a large amount of money being paid out to the victims of the equine activity related injuries and this in turn led to higher insurance premiums for equine sponsors and professionals.  Therefore, in order to preserve equine-affiliated areas of the economy and to facilitate equine activities, protection was needed from the increased liability imposed on equine sponsors and professionals. This need for protection led to the adoption of the EALA throughout the 1990’s. For example, New Mexico’s EALA statute, which is representative of most statements of legislative intent, states that:
The legislature recognizes that persons who participate in or observe equine activities may incur injuries as a result of the numerous inherent risks involved in such activities. The legislature also finds that the state and its citizens derive numerous personal and economic benefits from such activities. It is the purpose of the legislature to encourage owners, trainers, operators and promoters to sponsor or engage in equine activities by providing that no person shall recover for injuries resulting from the risks related to the behavior of equine animals while engaged in any equine activities.
The legal effect of the adoption of the EALA is to shift liability for injuries to the individual harmed, rather than to the owner of the horse or equine facility, or event organizers. Thus, the equine participant assumes the inherent risk of injury involved in the activity in which he or she takes part. The case Galardi v. Sea Horse Riding Club , 20 Cal. Rptr. 2d 270 (Cal. Ct. App. 1993), is an example of a dispute that was resolved without the aid of an EALA. In this case, an accomplished equestrian was injured when she fell from her horse as the horse was attempting to jump a fence. Galardi sued her instructor and the owner of the stables, alleging that they were negligent in supervising the activities and by improperly spacing the fences. The court found that the defendants owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, and that the duty was breached due to negligence. Thus, the court found in favor of the plaintiff.  However, if the case had been tried in a state that employs an EALA, the defendants, as equine sponsors, would have been exonerated from liability, unless they acted in a willful and wanton manner  (See, III. Recent Cases , infra. ).
The Equine Activity Liability Act, in the majority of the states  that have adopted it, stipulates that an equine sponsor or equine professional, or any other person, including corporations and partnerships, are immune from liability for the death or injury of a participant that resulted from the inherent risks of involvement in equine activities. Similarly, no participant may make a legal claim against any equine sponsor or professional or any other person for injury, damage or death that resulted from the inherent risk of participation in any equine activity. Compare the following language from actual state statutes that have adopted an EALA:
Except as provided in §44-20-104, an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or any other person, which shall include a corporation or partnership, shall not be liable for an injury to or the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities.
No equine activity sponsor, equine professional, doctor of veterinary medicine, or any other person, is liable for an injury to or the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities.
No person, corporation or partnership is liable for personal injuries to or for the death of a rider that may occur as a result of the behavior of equine animals while engaged in any equine activities. No person, corporation or partnership shall make any claim against, maintain any action against or recover from a rider, operator, owner, trainer or promoter for injury, loss or damage resulting from equine behavior unless the acts or omissions of the rider, owner, operator, trainer or promoter constitute negligence.
The Equine Activity Liability Act protects equine sponsors and professionals from liability if the injury results from an "inherent risk" of equine activities. The injury must result from a foreseeable risk that is possible or likely to occur from interacting with an equine, such as falling off a horse or being bitten by a horse (see, III. Recent Cases , infra ). An inherent risk does not pertain to injuries that occur as a result of an extraordinary occurrence not usually associated with equine activities. The following is the definition of the term "inherent risk" found in most state statutes that have adopted the EALA:
‘Inherent risks of equine activities,’ those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of equine activities, including but not limited to:
- The propensity of the animal to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around them;
- The unpredictability of the animal’s reaction to such things as sounds, sudden movement, and unfamiliar objects, persons, or other animals;
- Certain hazards such as surface and subsurface conditions;
- Collisions with other animals or objects;
- 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.
There are certain exceptions to the liability immunity of the EALA. Many states hold that an equine sponsor or professional, corporation, partnership or any other person will be held liable for injuries of an equine activity participant if he or she displays a willful and wanton or intentional disregard for the safety of the participant and if he or she fails to make reasonable and prudent efforts in ensuring the safety of the participant  - for example, by providing a participant with a horse, which the sponsor does not properly determine would fit the capability of that particular participant. In addition, one will be held liable for the injury of an equine activity participant if the participant is injured on the land or at a facility due to a dangerous latent condition of which was known to the equine sponsor, professional or other person. Furthermore, liability may be attributed to the equine sponsor or professional, corporation or other person engaged in an equine activity if he or she provides equipment or tack, which he or she knew or should have known, was faulty and which proximately caused injury, damage or death to the equine activity participant. See , S.D. Codified Laws 42-11 §3 (1993).
III. Recent Cases
The following are some examples of recent case law involving the Equine Activity Liability Act. In Amburgey v. Sauder , the plaintiff was bitten by a horse as she walked through a stable. The court determined that the plaintiff was a "participant" in an equine activity, for the purposes of the Equine Activity Liability Act. According to MCL 691.1662(g) , a "participant" is one that engages in an "equine activity" which includes visiting or touring an equine facility. For that reason, the defendant (the stable owner) was shielded from any civil liability arising out of the unanticipated, abnormal behavior of the horse. In addition, the Court of Appeals of Michigan found that the EALA immunizes owners from risks beyond that of those arising from an equine’s normal or anticipated behavior, which, in this case, was the unexpected bite by the horse. Therefore, the plaintiff’s claim was barred by the EALA. Amburgey v. Sauder , 605 N.W.2d 84 (1999).
The plaintiff in Kangas v. Perry , a passenger of a horse-drawn sled, sued the owner of the property on which her accident occurred, as well as the owner of the horses and the sled for the injuries she suffered when she was thrown from the sled. The Court of Appeals of Wisconsin found that the Equine Activity Liability Act provided protection for the owner of the horse against tort liability. The plain language of the statute provides that immunity to civil liability is available "… to all persons, including an equine activity sponsor or equine professional…" Wis. Stat, §895.481(2) (2002); thus protection was not limited only to those who are equine sponsors or professionals. Rather, they are mere examples of the types of people to which the statute applies. In addition, the court held that the horse’s propensity "to move without warning, is an inherent risk of equine activity contemplated by the statute." Thus, the EALA was applicable in this particular case, and the defendants were not held liable. Kangas v. Perry , 620 N.W.2d 429 (2000) .
The case Gibson v. Donahue involved a plaintiff who was injured when she was thrown from her horse, which she was riding in a city field. Gibson sued the defendant for the injuries that she suffered after she was thrown from her horse, which was startled by the defendant’s dogs. The horse became startled and threw the plaintiff off because the defendant’s dogs were chasing it. The defendant claimed that she was immune from liability under Ohio’s Equine Activity Liability Act. However, in this case of first impression, the court found that the EALA did not apply to the defendant because the plaintiff was not engaged in an "equine activity" at the time of her injury. According to Ohio’s EALA statute, "just riding one’s own horse in a non-sponsored event is not an ‘equine activity’" Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §2305.321(A)(2)(a) (2002) . Additionally, the court held that the statute is not meant to apply to all third parties involved in an accident in which an equine was present. The court stated that "if the legislature intended to provide immunity to all people, it would not have specifically listed those entitled to immunity." Therefore, the defendant was held liable for the injury of the plaintiff. Gibson v. Donahue , 772 N.E.2d 646 (2002) .
1. 24 N.C. Cent. L. J. 156 (2001). According to the American Horse Council (AHC) contribution, by the equine industry, to the gross domestic product is greater than the motion picture, railroad transportation, and tobacco industries, respectively.
3. See 3 Animal L. 201, 207 (1997).
4. See 62 Tenn. L. Rev. 997, 1027 (1995). Regarding Russell v. Downing ; another example of a case in which the outcome would vary if it were tried under the EALA as opposed to common tort law. In this case, the motion for dismissal of the defendant, a supervisor of a young rider who was injured, was defeated by the evidence presented. However, in a jurisdiction that has adopted the EALA, the statutory immunity would have defeated the plaintiff’s claim, unless there was a statutory exception, such as willful and wanton disregard for the safety of the young rider.
5. The following is a list of the 44 states which have adopted the EALA:
Alabama (Code of AL 1975 §6-5-337), Arizona (AZ Rev. Stat. §12-553), Arkansas (AR Code Ch. 120, §16-120-201), Colorado (CO Rev. Stats. §13-21-119), Connecticut (CT Gen. Stat. Anno. § 52-557p), Delaware (1995 DE Code Title 10, Ch. 81, §8140), Florida (1993 FL Laws Ch. 93-169, §773.01), Georgia (Code of GA Anno. §62-2701), Hawaii (1994 HI A.L.S. 249), Idaho (ID Code 1990 Ch. 18, §6-1801), Illinois (745 ILC.S.A. §47/1) , Indiana (IN Stat. Anno. §34-31-5-1), Iowa (IA Code Anno. §673.1), Kansas (1994 KS A.L.S. 290), Kentucky (KY Rev. Stat. §247.401), Louisiana (LA Rev. Stat. §9:2795.1), Maine (ME Stat. Title 7 §4101) , Massachusetts (MA Gen. Laws 128 §2D), Michigan (MI C.L. §691.1661) , Missouri (MO R.S. §537.325), Minnesota (MN Ch. 623, Art 3§2), Mississippi (MS Code Anno. §95-11-1), Montana (MT Code Anno. §27-1-725), Nebraska (Rev. Stat. of NE §25-21, 249), New Hampshire (NH Rev. Stat. Anno. §508:19), New Jersey (NJ Stat. 5:15-1), New Mexico (NM Stat. Anno. Art. 13, §42-13-1) , North Carolina (Gen. Stats. Of NC, ch. 99E, art. 1), North Dakota (ND Code §53-10-1), Ohio (OH Rev. Code §2305.32.1) , Oklahoma (OK Stat. Title 76 §50.1), Oregon (OR Rev. Stat. §30.687) , Rhode Island (RI Laws Ch. 21, §4-21-1), South Carolina (SC Laws §47-9-710), South Dakota (SD Laws Anno. §42-11-1) , Tennessee (TN Code Anno. §44-20-101) , Texas (TX Code Anno. §87.001), Utah (UT Code Anno. §78-27b-101), Virginia (VA Code Ch. 27.5, §3.1-796.130), Vermont (12 VT Stat. Anno. § 1039), Washington (WA R.C.W 4.24.530), West Virginia (WV Code Art. 4 §20-4-1), Wisconsin (WI S.A. §895.481), Wyoming (WY Stat. §1-1-122).
6. In some states, including Michigan, there is an exception for any person who "commits a "negligent" act or omission that constitutes a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage." Therefore, in the states that enforce this provision, the immunity offered by the EALA is severely limited because there is very little "tortious conduct that is not negligent, willful or wanton, or intentional. 24 N.C. Cent. L.J. 156, 165 (2001).