When we think of Florida recreation, we often think of things like boating, golfing, cycling, or swimming. But there is a large population in the state that participates in equine-related activities. Our climate and ample regions of open farmland make Florida a prime area for the raising and enjoyment of horses, and recreation related to them.
Inherent Dangers to Equine Recreation
Unlike many sports or recreational activities, equine events carry with them a unique aspect—the unknown variable of a living and often unpredictable animal that is involved in the sport.
Drive a boat safely and cautiously, and there is a good chance that you will remain injury free. But even the most experienced horse rider using all due care and caution may have to deal with a suddenly spooked or moody horse that acts erratically. A horse can routinely buck his head upward, striking a rider’s head, and knocking the rider to the ground. A horse may step in a ditch or hole, and while the horse may be fine, the unexpected bump can knock a rider off the animal.
We know from the tragic Christopher Reeve tragedy, that falls from horses can be devastating. Spinal injuries are common, as a rider’s head can be 13 feet above ground, on an animal travelling 60 miles per hour. It is estimated that there are 100 deaths per year caused by horse riding injuries, with 20 times that number of head injuries.
Who is Liable and When?
In many cases, businesses called “equine sponsors” will sponsor equine competitions or rent out horses or riding equipment to riders, schools, or clubs, whether for leisurely rides, or for competition. When injuries happen, victims will often look to these sponsors, or the businesses that hosted the events or rented the equipment, to see if their negligence contributed to the injuries.
Florida law protects these businesses and sponsors and makes it difficult for those injured in equine-related accidents to sue.
Someone who is injured can not sue for risks that are “inherent” in the activity. That can include almost anything that can reasonably be anticipated to happen during the course of equine events.
That is a complete immunity. Unlike other legal areas, where a jury may be able to apportion liability between a plaintiff and a defendant, here, if an accident is simply something that is within the inherent nature of horseback riding or equine sport, the victim is completely barred from recovery.
Exceptions May Allow a Lawsuit
There are exceptions, which if met, would allow a victim to recover. The law does allow a victim to sue a business that provides equines or equine equipment, if the business fails to make a reasonable and prudent investigation of whether the rider can manage the animal safely. This is based on the participant’s representations of his or her abilities, so riders should never misrepresent their experience level with horses.
Business do not have to give riders a full blown examination, but certainly, basic inquiries should be made as to a rider’s experience, and efforts should be made to match riders with horses of appropriate sizes and temperaments. In some cases, it may mean denying riders the ability to ride a horse at all.
The immunity provided for the riding of the horse, also does not extend to immunity for maintaining the premises where the horse will be ridden.
This means that a victim can sue if the injury was caused by the premises itself. Thus, a landowner who rents a horse may be liable if the horse were to hit a pothole, and throw the rider off. A landowner may be liable to a rider who hits his head on a roof structure that is lower than it should be.
A victim can also sue if an injury was caused by faulty equipment, if the equine sponsor knew or should have known the equipment was faulty. A victim will have to show that the faulty responsible caused the injury, in full or in fault. So, for example, a victim who is thrown off a horse because of a faulty saddle, will have to show that she would not have fallen had it not been because of the saddle. That can be a tough burden to meet.
If the owner does or fails to do act as a reasonably prudent person would have in the same circumstance, they too can be liable. This is a “catch-all,” which can include a broad range of circumstances.
Lastly, anything the owner does that is considered intentional, reckless, or wanton, will also be an exception to liability, allowing the victim to sue for equine-related injuries.
Contracts Can Limit Liability
It is important to note that although Florida law dictates when an equine event sponsor can be liable for injuries, that does not mean that they can not exculpate themselves from all liability through an agreement. Exculpatory agreements—that is, “hold harmless” agreements, where consumers agree not to sue business owners if they are injured—are still enforceable in equine-related injuries, to the extent they would be enforceable in any other area of law. In other words, there is nothing in Florida law that prohibits their use in equine-related activities.
Like anything else, equine activities can be and should be enjoyed, but with an eye towards caution. If you are injured while engaging in equine or horse related recreation, contact attorneys who can identify the responsible parties. Call the injury attorneys of Brill & Rinaldi today for a free consultation to discuss your case.