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