Many boarding stables and other equine businesses require customers and guests to sign liability release forms. But we’ve all heard that “liability releases aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.” Is that true? Will those release forms actually protect the business from liability?
How Do Liability Releases Work?
Liability releases, also known as hold harmless agreements and waivers, do two very important things:
- Discourage people from suing you in the first place.
- And help prevent them from winning if they do sue.
Any liability release can accomplish the first goal. However, the more thorough a liability release is, the more lawsuit deterrent value it has.
To achieve the second goal, a liability release has to accomplish two very specific tasks. First, it has to inform the person signing the release form of the risks of the activity they’re about to engage in. Second, the liability release has to get the signer to agree to accept those risks. When a liability release accomplishes these two tasks, it provides the basis for a legal defense known as assumption of the risk.
The More Specific, the Better
Because a well-drafted liability release is intended to inform about risks, it needs to be very specific. For example, Equine Legal Solutions’ liability release forms include specific provisions about the dangers involved in trail riding, such as wild animals spooking horses. A poorly drafted liability releases will make only generic statements like, “Horseback riding is dangerous,” without saying why it’s dangerous. The idea is for the release to cover all the typical risks of the activity. For that reason, a well-drafted liability release is often much longer than a poorly-drafted liability release.
The Right Parties Must be Released
A well-drafted liability release includes the universe of people and entities who could be sued. For example, a boarding stable release should include not only the stable itself, but also its owners, employees and independent contractors. If the stable doesn’t own the property where it operates, the release form should also include the property owners. Note that the parties to be released can be listed as a category, like “employees,” rather than listing each person individually by name. In fact, listing the parties to be released by category is safer. That way, if the members of the category change, the new members of the category are automatically covered by the existing release. For example, if a boarding stable hires new employees, its existing liability release form will cover the new employees as long as the boarding stable’s employees are listed as a released party.
The Right Parties Must Sign
Because the person signing a liability release form can only sign away their own rights, each person who might sue you needs to sign a liability release. For example, a boarder can’t sign away their family members’ and guests’ legal rights. So, each family member and guest who visits the boarding facility would need to sign a separate release.
Children (minors, persons under 18 years of age) can’t sign away their legal rights. Period. So having a child sign a liability release does absolutely no good. For that reason, one-size-fits-all liability releases simply don’t work. When you have a person under 18 participating in a horse activity, you need a release designed for the parent or guardian of that participant to sign, stating that they accept the risks of what the child is about to do. Because having a parent or guardian sign a liability release only waives that person’s rights to sue, not the other parents’ or guardian’s rights’, you would be wise to have a liability release that includes an indemnification provision. In a well-drafted indemnification provision, the person signing the release agrees that if anyone else sues you, the signer will pay for your legal defense.