A holiday parade in Bellevue, a small town in Iowa, went terribly wrong on the Fourth of July. The driver of a two-horse hitch lost control of the rig when one of his horses managed to rub the bridle off the other one and the panicked animals plowed through spectators for seven blocks. One woman, a passenger in the wagon, was killed; at least two dozen other people, ranging in age from two through 62, were injured. By most accounts, the driver did all he could to stop the horses.

Accidents like this one often attract a stampede of personal injury lawyers and a flood of lawsuits, whether or not anyone actually was at fault. The list of potential defendants is a lengthy one: the city of Bellevue, the parade organizers, the driver of the wagon, the owner of the horses, the person who tacked up the horses, the manufacturer of the harness, and anyone else peripherally involved in the incident. Even if a lawsuit proves to be groundless, defending against the claims involves attorney fees and other expenses, lost time, and possibly irreparable harm to the goodwill of a horse business.

In the days following the Bellevue accident, other parade organizers in the area gave no indication that they planned to ban horses from their events. So, what is a horse owner to do when considering a parade appearance?

The safest answer to is to stay at home, thereby eliminating any chance of an accident and subsequent liability. But horses are popular participants in parades everywhere, and a parade appearance, at least an accident-free one, can be a valuable public relations opportunity for your business. If you are thinking about taking your horses to a parade or other public event, consider the following:

Everyone has a legal duty to act reasonably under whatever circumstances exist at the time, and a breach of that duty is a necessary element of a successful negligence lawsuit. Acting reasonably when participating in a parade might include being certain that tack and other equipment is in safe and serviceable condition, that the horses have sufficient training and disposition to handle the stress of the event, and that each person handling the animals knows what he or she is doing. Green horses and green riders are a dangerous mix; so are green horses and parades.

State equine activity liability laws are on the books in 46 states, but these statutes are written primarily to protect the organizers of equine events. These laws generally exclude protection from liability for spectator injuries, however, and may be of little use if your horse injures a spectator at the event. The same is true for liability waivers that often are printed on admission tickets. These waivers may or may not be enforceable in court, probably do not insulate participants from liability, and almost never are required for spectators at a parade or other public event.

Cities or other organizers often have either umbrella liability insurance policies or event-specific coverage. These policies may protect the city or the event organizer when there are injuries to spectators, but they are not a substitute for your own insurance. Homeowners insurance typically will not help if your horses injure a spectator at an event, and commercial liability coverage is a necessity for any public appearance.

Incidents like the tragedy in Bellevue are rare, but they do happen.

The bottom line: hope for the best but be prepared for the worst.