WHEN IS A ‘RELEASE’ NOT A RELEASE?

Joe operates a riding and boarding stable.  His state has enforced liability releases in the past, but he has never used them. Instead, he posts one sign on his barn that says: “Ride at Your Own Risk.” He believes the sign operates the same as a liability waiver or release and will completely prevent him from being sued if someone is hurt. Jill boards a horse at Joe’s stable.  Before she left town for a vacation, Jill gave her friend permission to ride and handle her horse in her absence.  Knowing that Joe’s barn has posted a “Ride at Your Own Risk” sign, Jill believes that she does not need anything further to protect her from liability in case something should happen to her friend.

Does the posting of a sign make it unnecessary for Joe or Jill to use liability releases?  Generally speaking, the answer is no. Signs are important and are, in fact, required under many state equine activity liability laws.  But one sign is not the same as a release (also called a “waiver”) of liability.   This article explores the benefits of using both.

The Difference Between a Sign and a Release
There are important differences between posting a sign and using a release of liability that is legally valid, well written, and properly signed.  Certainly, a sign that says “ride at your own risk” announces, in plain language, the facility’s policy and intention of limiting its liability.  However, when an incident arises, the injured party is almost certain to deny ever seeing the sign. A release of liability, by comparison, is an indication in writing that the visitor or customer has read, understood, and agreed to accept the facility’s policy of limiting its liability.  Also, as discussed below, the release provides an excellent opportunity to educate about risks and more.

The Difference Between an Equine Activity Liability Law and a
Release

If you live or do business in one of the 43 states with an equine activity liability law on the books (as of April 1999), you may have strong protection against many types of liabilities arising from certain equine activities.  This author has written several articles and a book in the past addressing these laws.  However, the laws were not designed to permanently end all liability in the horse industry.  Because no “zero liability” laws exist, a written release of liability, where allowed by state
law, is an extra attempt to avoid liability. Most states nationwide have enforced well-written and properly presented releases of liability.  In the states that enforce releases, courts often (but not always) recognize that people cannot release away the right to sue for certain types of serious wrongdoing, such as “gross negligence,” “willful and wanton misconduct,” or intentional misconduct. Already, releases have been enforced in states with equine liability laws.  For example, in a recent Colorado case, that state’s highest court held that a liability release remained valid even after the enactment of the Colorado equine activity liability law.  As a result, the court held, the release could waive liability even for claims that were based on the Colorado law’s exceptions.  Because Colorado law prevented releases from waiving liability for willful and wanton misconduct, however, the court allowed the lawsuit to proceed only on those claims.  The case was Riehl v. B & B Livery, Inc., 960 P.2d 134 (Colo. 1998).

Extra Benefits of a Release of Liability
Posting a warning sign, especially where required by law, is very important.  A release of liability has the potential to do much more.  For example:

Risks
Most of the 43 equine activity liability laws acknowledge that certain equine activities involve “inherent risks” and state that equine professionals, equine activity sponsors, and possibly others cannot be sued if a participant is injured or dies as a result of an inherent risk of an equine activity (subject to the law’s exceptions).  A release of liability can recite the inherent risks and even other risks.  This information can be especially informative if the release is presented to novices with little experience around horses.

Headgear Warning
The release can advise visitors, customers, or guests about  ASTM-standard/SEI-certified equestrian helmets.  Helmets meeting these standards are proven to be most effective.

Health Insurance
A small number of equine facilities require all customers to maintain their own health insurance as a condition to being on
the premises.  Some of these facilities require customers to identify their health insurance carrier and policy number.  For these facilities, the release can make this requirement and information part of a binding contract, not just a policy.

Binding Effect
If Jill’s friend should become injured while taking a trail ride off of the stable’s property, he or she might assert that the “Ride at Your Own Risk” policy posted on the barn does not apply.  Whether or not this argument is valid, a release can seek to eliminate this claim by specifying that the release is binding when the one to whom it applies rides or is near horses at any location.

Equine Activity Liability Act Notices
Most states with equine activity liability laws require certain persons — usually, but not always, equine professionals — to post warning signs containing required language.  These laws frequently require certain persons, groups, or businesses to include the same warning notices or other language in contracts and releases. In a small number of states, the equine liability laws indicate that those who fail to adhere to these requirements could lose the laws’ immunities.

Conclusion
In conclusion, please keep the following ideas in mind:

  1.  Find out if you live or do business in one of the 43 states with an equine activity liability law.  You can obtain a copy of your law by
    contacting a state legislator, horse council, cooperative extension service, or lawyer.
  2.  None of the equine liability laws mandates the words “ride at your own risk” for signs.  Rather, many of the laws typically require certain “warning” language on signs.  A sizable number of these laws also affect language in contracts and releases.
  3. States have different requirements regarding liability releases.  A few states will not enforce them.  Before using a standard form, make sure that it complies with your law.
  4. Remember that a release will not protect you against all lawsuits, and there is no guarantee that a court will enforce a release. Also, even with the best possible release, the need for insurance remains strong.  People who sign releases can, and sometimes do, sue.

This article does not constitute legal advice.  When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable attorney.


About the Author

Julie I. Fershtman is an attorney with a law practice serving the horse industry.  In her 15 years as a lawyer, she has achieved numerous courtroom victories and has drafted hundreds of contracts.  An independent lawyer rating service gives her its highest rating for abilities.  She can be reached at (248) 851-4111.

Looking for good resources on Equine Law?  Ms. Fershtman’s books are highly informative, easy to understand, and even easier to order.  MORE Equine Law & Horse Sense, the newest book, sells for $22.95 + $4 shipping and handling.  Equine Law & Horse Sense, the first book, sells for $17.95 + $4 shipping and handling.  Michigan residents add 6% sales tax.  To order, contact Horses & The Law Publishing at (866) 5-EQUINE, a toll-free number, or send check or money order to Horses & The Law Publishing, P.O. Box 250696 Franklin, MI 48025-0696.