It’s a rough road to ride through the terrain of the Equine Liability Act as a lawyer representing a client injured while engaged in equine activities on a horse farm. Matsikoudis & Fanciullo recently guided a seriously injured client past the various obstacles the Equine Liability Act poses to a plaintiff and delivered an arbitration verdict of $750,000.
The Equine Liability Act is intended to promote New Jersey’s horse industry by insulating horse farms from liability against the inherent risks of horses. But the Act does not protect the owners against injuries caused by anything else – including, without limitation, risks related to bad owners, bad trainers, bad people or bad conditions. N.J.S.A.5:15- 1, et seq. The Supreme Court recognized this distinction in Hubner v. Spring Valley Equestrian Center, 203 N.J. 184, 198, 202-03 (2010),
A threshold question is whether a horse farm owner or operator is entitled to the benefits of Equine Liability Act: To qualify for protection, farm owners must comply with the requirements of the Act – for instance, the requirement that horse farm operators post warning signs “all around” their properties so that anyone who might come into contact with a horse can see them. N.J.S.A 5:15-10. In our case, a thorough investigation of the Defendant’s social media account and a rigorous cross-examination demonstrated to the arbitration panel that the Defendant did not post warning signs; the panel therefore concluded that Defendant was not entitled to the protection of the Equine Liability Act and decided the case pursuant to the principles of comparative negligence.
Even when farm owners comply with the Act’s requirements, the Act also contains various exceptions – as noted above, it only protects farm owners from the “inherent” risks of horses, not anything else. In our case, although our successful argument (that the relevant farm owner did not comply with the Act’s requirements) relieved us of the necessity to prove that liability was appropriate under exceptions of the Act, we nonetheless had and made strong arguments related to various of the Act’s exceptions as an alternative theory, which proved helpful to establish liability under the general theory of negligence. Armed with an expert report that the horse in question betrayed dangerous characteristics, such as bucking and rearing, either of which made the horse unsuitable for a school setting, we were able to persuade the panel to conclude that the Defendant was negligent. Pairing a volatile horse with a student rider like our client also triggers liability under the Act, which specifically provides an exception to immunity for “mismatching a rider with a mount.” N.J.S.A. 5:15-9 (b).
We were further able to demonstrate the Defendant’s negligence via the “bible” of the horse industry, the United States Hunter Jumper Association Trainer’s Certification Manual, which we successfully argued effectively establishes the standard of care in equine liability cases. In our case, our student client was seriously injured when the Defendants sent our client out to a pasture alone to retrieve a horse that had a history of bucking and rearing, the horse spooked and (as we argued, not surprisingly) kicked our client. By sending our client out alone to retrieve the horse, Defendant violated two admonitions of the Manual: (1) Horses that buck and rear are not suitable horses for students, and (2) Students must always be supervised should never be allowed to turn in or out a horse alone.
Succeeding on behalf a client that is injured on a horse farm requires knowledge of the Equine Liability Act, creativity, and meticulous attention to the facts. At Matsikoudis & Fanciullo, we have proven we have all three.
If you are someone you know has been injured on a horse farm or while riding a horse, contact Matsikoudis & Fanciullo for a free consultation and case evaluation. Our expertise in these matters will help guide you to seek the best outcome.
Call us at: 201 915 0407