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Arizona’s Equine Limited Liability Law: Enforceable Liability Releases Are Required

Author: Leah McKeever

Guest Editor: Allen Aho

September 1, 2020 8:30am

A horse’s nature is different from other animals. Despite their size, and surprising to many, horses are prey animals. The natural temperament of a horse is similar to a rabbit, which can be very unpredictable. For this reason, equine activities are therefore inherently dangerous. Nevertheless, equine owners or agent(s) of the owner (“equine owner(s)”) and owner(s), agent(s), or lessor of any riding stable, rodeo ground, training or boarding stable or other private property (“equine facility owner(s)”) may still be held liable of the injury or death of another.

Arizona, as well as many other states, have enacted legislation to protect those in the equine industry from liability if a participant suffers an injury or death from an inherent risk of an equine related activity. Arizona’s Equine Limited Liability statute provides an equine owner is not liable for injury or death if: (1) the participant took control of the equine prior to injury or death; (2) if the participant or the parent or legal guardian of a minor participant signed a release before taking control of the equine; (3) if the owner or agent has properly installed suitable tack or the participant personally tacked the equine with tack provided by the owner or agent of the equine; or (4) the owner or agent assigns a suitable equine based on a reasonable interpretation of the participant’s representation of his or her skills, health and experience with and knowledge of equines. A.R.S. § 12-553(A).

The Arizona Equine Limited Liability Statute requires a signed release in order for equine owners and equine facility owners to obtain a higher benefit of proof. It defines “Release” as “a document that a person signs before taking control of an equine from the owner or owner’s agent and that acknowledges that the person is aware of the inherent risks associated with equine activities, is willing and able to accept full responsibility for his own safety and welfare and releases the equine owner or agent from liability…”

In Bothell v. Two Point Acres, Inc., the Appellate Court overturned a motion for summary judgment in favor of Two Point Acres based on the determination the plaintiff had not taken control of the horse as required by A.R.S.§12-553 and the release signed by the plaintiff’s father was insufficient to waive liability. 192 Ariz. 313, 965 P.2d 47 (App. 1998). In Bothell, a minor child participated in an after school equine program, which provided supervision to those participating in the program. Her father signed a release as to the risks inherent to riding horses. While participating in the program, she was haltering a horse in a corral where a second horse was present. After placing the halter on the horse, she wrapped the lead rope around her arm (very dangerous—never do this), and stepped through the corral to open it from the outside. While exiting the corral, the second horse approached the haltered horse and ended up kicking the lead rope causing it to tighten and cause injuries to her arm. The minor’s father filed a lawsuit against Two Point Acres for the injuries sustained to his daughter’s arm. Two Point Acres moved for summary judgment contending the release and A.R.S. §12-553 provided immunity for the injury suffered by plaintiff. The Court disagreed. Although the release stated the participant accepts the risks of injury “arising from approaching and handling” a horse, the Court found that reasonable minds can differ as to the meaning of “handling” a horse and whether the release covers the specific activity the minor was involved during the time of the incident. Id. at 51, 965 P.2d 317. Similarly, the Court found A.R.S. §12-553 does not define when a person is deemed to have “taken control” of an equine. Id. at 53, 965 P.2d 320. Moreover, the Court found the defendant could be found liable for negligent supervision and A.R.S. §12-553 did not protect the defendant from liability because the minor had not “taken control” of the horse at the time of injury. Id.

Conversely, in Lindsay v. Cave Creek Outfitters, L.L.C., the Appellate Court upheld the trial courts decision to grant Cave Creek Outfitters’ motion for summary judgment finding the immunity of A.R.S. §12-553 applied to the facts in this matter. 207 Ariz. 487, 88 P.3d 557 (App. 2003). In Lindsay, the plaintiff was visiting Arizona when she decided to go on a trail ride with her friend. She informed Cave Creek Outfitters, the equine facility, that she was an inexperienced rider. The wranglers provided instructions on the basics of riding a horse and plaintiff signed the release and waiver of liability. While on the trail, the guide’s horse began acting up and bucking. In the midst of the commotion, the plaintiff was thrown from her horse. After checking on the plaintiff, the guide began picking cactus from the plaintiff’s horse. The plaintiff believes she was thrown from her horse when her horse stepped into the cactus. She filed an action against Cave Creek Outfitters for negligence. Cave Creek Outfitters moved for summary judgment based on the release signed by the plaintiff and the immunity provided by A.R.S § 12-553. The motion was granted and plaintiff appealed. The Appellate Court declined to reverse the trial court’s decision finding the release signed by plaintiff satisfied the requirements of A.R.S. §12-553(E)(2) because it contained an acknowledgment of the inherent risks associated with riding a horse and clearly established plaintiff promised not to sue. Id. at 563, 88 P.3d at 493.  Unlike Bothell, the release here explicitly released Cave Creek Outfitters from injuries arising from kicking, bucking, stumbling, unpredictable movements and the like, the activity causing plaintiff’s injuries.

Liability is not limited when an equine owner is grossly negligent or commits willful, wanton or intentional acts or omissions leading to the injury or death to another. For instance, an equine owner will probably be found liable if they put an inexperience rider on a horse prone to bad or dangerous behavior, or if an equine owner personally tacks the equine with deteriorating equipment and tack.

The Tyson & Mendes Takeaway: In order to obtain a higher burden of proof against actions for injury, death, and/or damage arising for equine activities, it is necessary to obtain an enforceable release and waiver of liability from the participant. The release must satisfy the requirements of A.R.S. § 12-553 and should be drafted to define the scope of the danger released and acknowledge the inherent risk of equine activities.

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