Whether you are building your barn for your own personal use or as a business for boarding, training or breeding, you need to know what your liability risk is and how to best insure yourself and your assets from lawsuits. While this blog is based on a seminar by Oregon equine attorney Kathryn A. Hall, the information is not to be construed as legal advice - it is strongly recommended that you meet with your own lawyer and an insurance agent who specialize in equine businesses.
Equine liability is the responsibility for equine-related loss, damage or harm. This can be due to personal injury, injury to horses or property damage. Depending on how your barn is used, you can be liable for contracts for boarding, training, breeding, lease or sale. You may also be liable as the owner of the property or the business. If you are also a trainer, you may have professional liability when advising or making decisions for clients.
As a landowner, you have a duty to be aware of dangerous conditions and to keep your premises reasonably safe by eliminating those conditions. You also have a duty to warn people invited onto your premises of any dangerous conditions or activities, i.e. horses and horseback riding. However, not all liability is automatic and states can vary. If there was no legal duty to look out for or protect someone, there is no liability. Or if there was a duty, but no breach of that duty occurred (sometimes accidents just happen), then there is no liability. Again, it is important to discuss your state’s laws with an attorney.
How can you limit your liability?
- Obtain appropriate insurance – your homeowner’s policy may not be enough.
- Use well-written contracts, including waivers.
- Use a separate corporate entity for your equine-related activities.
- Understand your state’s equine inherent risk law.
- Implement sound business practices.
- Keep your premises well maintained.
- Promote good horsemanship and safety.
One of the most common forms to help limit liability is the written contract. It can clarify the parties’ rights and responsibilities, including disclaimers. It should include such things as the jurisdiction and venue for any litigation, alternative dispute resolutions and the right of the winner to recovery attorney fees from the loser. Make sure it is as complete as possible – don’t just say “horses are dangerous.” List the ways they can be dangerous – running, kicking, biting, falls, etc. Also be sure that the right person is signing the contract. While most stables have a parent sign for minors, remember that an adult can only sign away their rights. No parent can sign away a child’s rights nor can they sign away the right of the other parent. Although this may seem like overkill, it is also best to have BOTH parents sign the waiver (unless one parent has sole custody of the child).
You have probably seen numerous pre-printed forms at tack stores or “standard” forms on the internet. These may only be appropriate for the most straight-forward of transactions. However, they may not comply with your state laws and the quality is only as good as the person who wrote it. Having an equine attorney for your state draft your contracts and waivers will ensure that it covers your specific business practices – plus the attorney will be on hand to defend it in case of a lawsuit.
Finally, ensure that your staff is reliable and well-trained, that you have plans to cover fire, disease and extreme weather, and don’t be afraid to turn around boarders, trainers or guests who won’t sign your paperwork or who you feel present an unreasonable risk.