Unique Liability Risks Involving Minors

Foster Swift Collins & Smith
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Foster Swift Collins & Smith

This year, I was invited to speak at the American Youth Horse Council’s Virtual Symposium on the topic of “Unique Equine Liability Risks Involving Minors - What They Are and How to Protect Yourself.” This article summarizes my remarks.

Children and horses have a strong bond. Many of us developed our passion for horses when we were young children. Those who provide horse-related activities for children, such as riding instructors and camps, face unique risks because the law looks at children differently than adults.

Liability Waivers/Releases and Minors: Take Caution

Courts in most states have shown a willingness to enforce liability waivers/releases – as long as the documents were properly worded and signed. Still, courts in several states (including, but not limited to, Alabama, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington) have held that parents cannot legally release the claims of their minor children. By comparison, a few other states (including, but not limited to, Alaska, California, Colorado, and Ohio) have allowed waivers/releases signed by a parent to bar claims of their injured children. (Keep in mind that the law changes on this issue.)

If you are an equine industry professional, these variations could mean that your well-worded liability waiver/release document may be powerless to stop a claim brought by an injured child, depending on the applicable law. Worse, as explained below, you might receive a child’s lawsuit several years in the future.

Statute of Limitations: It’s Different for Minors

Statutes of limitations are laws essentially setting forth deadlines for filing lawsuits. State laws vary considerably as to the time limit to file a lawsuit against a person or entity arising from a personal injury. One state allows up to six years for an injured person to file suit, while a few others allow only one year, with the rest of the states falling in between. Limited exceptions apply. When the injured person is a minor, these statutory time limits typically don’t apply. Most states allow minors to file suit within a certain period of time after they have reached the age of majority (age 18 in most states). This means that your student who fell off and broke his leg at age 8 could file suit against you at least 10 years after the accident. By then, you may have forgotten about what happened.

Equine Activity Liability Acts

Equine activity liability acts (now found in all states but California and Maryland) sometimes offer powerful defenses against personal injury claims. Laws in Oregon and Pennsylvania, by their terms, only apply to claims of injured adults. By comparison, the majority of these laws could potentially apply to claims of injured children. Whether an equine activity liability act is powerful enough to defeat an injured minor’s claim depends on the facts and law.

Risk Management

As you consider ways to control liability risks involving children, here are a few ideas:

  • Use incident reports. Develop a form that provides information on the injured person, what happened, where it happened, who saw it, what they saw, the horse involved (if any), and more. Plan to secure these documents for many years. Do not destroy them until you are certain they are no longer needed, preferably after you have consulted with a knowledgeable lawyer.
  • Liability insurance. Make sure that you are properly insured for all of your horse-related activities. Discuss coverages with a knowledgeable insurance agent.
  • Liability waivers/releases. Where allowed by law, make liability waivers/releases part of your routine paperwork, but make sure they are properly worded and signed by at least one parent or legally appointed guardian of the child (the babysitter almost certainly doesn’t qualify as a “legal guardian”). Just as with incident reports, store your signed waiver/release documents securely. When children reach the age of majority, you can ask them to sign your documents.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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