Almost every state—all except New York, Maryland, Nevada, and California—have some sort of equine activity law that in many situations can serve as a defense to a horse-related personal injury claim. These state laws differ in detail, but generally recognize that horse sports and other equine activities have inherent risks associated with them. When participants are warned of these risks and then take part in the activity anyway, they assume the risk of being injured.
In Kentucky, the law works like this:
Thomas Biesty is a horseman with a self-described "God-given talent for training horses that very few people possessed." In 2008 he signed on to work with horses owned by brothers Wilton and Lamon Flynn at their farm in rural Estill County. The horses included Spirit Aces High, a Tennessee Walking Horse stallion owned by Lamon.
Spirit Aces High apparently was skittish and tried to buck whenever Biesty rode him. One day in October, the trainer rode Spirit Aces High down a driveway toward the front gate of the Flynn property, where Lamon was standing and watching. About the time Biesty turned Spirit Aces High back toward the barn, Lamon pushed open the 12-foot metal gate. It dragged along the gravel driveway and made a loud, scraping noise.
The sudden noise spooked Spirit Aces High. The horse reared and unseated Biesty, who suffered a "herniated disc, a pinched nerve in his left elbow, bruised ribs, hyperextension of his right shoulder, ripped cartilage in his right hand, and numerous broken teeth." Medical treatment was lengthy and expensive and Biesty sued the Flynn brothers for the injuries.
Round Pens and Noisy Gates
Biesty claimed that the farm was not a safe place to train horses and that Wilton Flynn specifically failed to provide a "safe working environment" because he didn’t have a round pen for Spirit Aces High’s training.
Biesty claimed that Lamon Flynn acted either recklessly, or carelessly, or negligently—pick one—when he opened the farm gate and spooked the horse.
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, based on Kentucky’s Farm Animal Activity Act. Among the inherent risks of riding a horse, the law includes an animal’s unpredictable reaction to sounds, such as a gate scraping across gravel. The court determined that Biesty knew the gate dragged on the driveway each time it was opened, and that the Flynns had no duty to eliminate inherent risks that are "reasonably obvious, expected, or necessary."
The Act in Action
The Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge:
●Because Biesty was an experienced horseman, the court concluded that he was "well aware of the risks associated with training horses."
●Biesty also was aware that the Flynns did not have a round pen for training when he took the job, the appellate court said. The failure to build a pen did not show a disregard for Biesty’s safety and the lack of a pen did not contribute to the trainer’s injuries.
●"Contrary to Biesty’s contentions," the court explained, "the sound (of the scraping gate) and its source did not cause his injury. Rather, it was the horse’s unpredictable reaction to the sound which resulted in his being bucked and injured."
The law did what legislators wanted it to do. By recognizing that a certain level of risk necessarily comes with working around horses, it gave the Flynn brothers a successful defense to Biesty’s personal injury claim.
But are such laws fair?
Do state equine activity laws provide a necessary buffer against lawsuits for injuries that should have been predictable? Or do these laws unnecessarily limit the right of an injured person to use the legal system for necessary compensation?