Horse Ownership and the Law

During “Be your horse’s hero: Equine emergency care“, our free client education seminar, we had a phenomenal guest speaker stop in. Lee Atterbury, partner at Atterbury, Kammer & Haag S.C. and long time horse owner and client at Irongate Equine Clinic, spoke to us about the Equine Immunity Statute, auto insurance coverages, and property insurance for horse owners and trainers. Read on to learn about what it means to be a horse owner when it comes to the law.

The Law: The Equine Immunity Statute

The Equine Immunity Statute is a law which protects a person from civil liability for their part in an equine activity in which someone is injured or killed. In essence, it claims that equestrian activities are inherently dangerous and participants need to assume a certain amount of risk prior to partaking in any activity. It sounds as though you’re immune from any and all fault when a horse is involved. However, that’s just not the case. There are exceptions galore, and even though the statute exists, people can still sue you. Let’s do a run down of the exceptions:

  • Ever have a horse kick someone who was standing to the side? Well, if a spectator is injured, you’re liable.
  • Have those reins been through the ringer, maybe the stitching is getting a little thin around the bit latch? If you provide faulty tack or equipment, you’re liable.
  • Thought you would give someone a thrill and let them walk around the paddock on your Grand Prix mare? If you “over horse”, or give someone a horse who requires more expertise than they have, you’re liable.
  • What about having a pothole in the farm driveway? If someone is injured on land or in a facility with a known flaw, you’re liable.
  • Did your horse get loose for the umpteenth time, but this time, actually cause some damage? You’re liable.
  • Say you’re a single family home with some horses, and have a few friends over for a ride. You probably think that the Equine Immunity Statute protects you should anything happen. However, you need to have warnings signs or a legally sound waiver in order to take advantage of the Equine Liability Statute. So, if not…you’re liable.
  • Finally, and I hope I don’t need examples for this, if you display willful or wanton disregard for someone’s safety, or choose to deliberately injure them, you are, of course, liable.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it’s a useless law. The law primarily exists to discourage lawsuits. Plaintiff lawyers are less likely to take a case they’re not going to win, and a law such as this limits the ability to win. If a lawyer does take the case, they may very well charge more, which means that a plaintiff may choose not to sue after all, since the work outweighs the benefits. Similarly, if a case does go to court, the law may persuade participants to settle more quickly. Despite this purpose though, as a horse owner/breeder/trainer/boarder, you can still be sued, and you should protect yourself accordingly. Which brings us to our next topic…

The Solution: Get Insurance

Since we know that the Equine Liability Statute doesn’t cover a variety of situations, and that people can still sue you, you’ll want to protect your assets by purchasing insurance for your cars, trailers, home, and self.

Your worst case scenario is that someone without health or disability insurance sues you for liability and wins the case. You end up paying all of their medical bills while injured, as well as their expenses while on temporary disability. Protect against this by paying a monthly insurance premium, and you’ll rest easier at night.

Vehicle insurance has multiple complex layers – its important to know what you’re paying for. Let’s cover the biggies.

  • Picture your liability insurance as a protective blanket wrapped around your car. Liability protects against damage that you, or another driver of your car, may cause to the car, yourself, and other passengers in the car. It also provides you coverage in case you damage another person’s property.
  • Your uninsured and underinsured coverage protects everyone in the car if they are injured by someone who doesn’t have insurance, or has a low coverage limit (underinsured).
  • Finally, comprehensive and/or collision insurance protects the vehicle if it is damaged. That means that if you want your trailer covered as well as your car, you’ll need to have insurance for your trailer.

Still confused? The best way to fully cover yourself is to talk to insurance agents. Conveniently, they love selling insurance. And you really need to buy it. Tell them about the horses and other animals that you own, the activities you perform, the people that come on to your property, etc. Leave no stone unturned, and you will end up fully insured. Not only that, but you’ll want to make sure that any trainers that come on to your property also have insurance. If someone comes on to your property and is sued by another while on your property, that plaintiff could come after your assets as well. Ensure that any persons coming on to your property for work are also insured.


Questions:

What if someone hurts my horse?

If your own horse is injured, you’re entitled to reasonable veterinary care. If your horse has to be euthanized or dies instantaneously, you’re entitled to what the horse is worth, monetarily. Think about it like a Kelly Blue Book value. Since there isn’t anything like the Blue Book, of course, there can be a lot of conflict and arguments over the value of your horse.

Does fencing have much impact on insurance claims/lawsuits?

Yes. Wisconsin is a “fence in” state, like much of the more populated United States. What this means is that it is the job of the owner to keep their livestock (cattle, sheep, horses, etc) off of public property and other privately owned land. Thus, you are ‘fencing in’ your horses. This is in contrast to the more complicated laws of some western states such as Wyoming and Colorado, where the important agriculture industry sustains many “fence out” laws. In those states, many families and private properties are held responsible for keeping livestock off of their properties. This difference enables the vast plains to take advantage of open ranges and allow cattle and other livestock to roam and graze freely. Nonetheless, many of these laws are now curbed. How does the “fence in” law affect you? It means that you must have some “reasonable” fencing to keep your horses on your property. It is not specifically dictated what “reasonable” means, but there is a precedence that stallions need to have more secure fencing than geldings, mares, and yearlings or foals.

I board my horse at a local facility. If she gets out and causes damage, who does that cost go back to - myself, or the facility that should be maintaining the fencing?

This will be the boarding barn's responsibility.

Neighborhood kids sometimes come over to ride my horses. I just give them a little note that I made saying that I'm not liable, and their parents sign it. Does this cover me?

No. Wisconsin is not a pro-waiver state. Historically, Wisconsin has disfavored liability waivers and regards them with intense scrutiny. If you still want to rely on a waiver, make sure you limit what culpability you’re waiving to very specific scenarios and you limit legal jargon. If you waive all culpability, including injuries due to your own negligence or recklessness, the courts are unlikely to uphold your waiver.

Other states of instituted laws for emotional damage from the loss of pets. Where does Wisconsin stand on that?

It’s very unlikely we’ll see emotional damage recoveries in Wisconsin. Wisconsin already has limits on the recovery you can get for the death, and there is no recovery for any emotional toll of the loss of a pet.

By Kelly Danner