A.R.S. § 12-553 establishes a higher burden of proof in order to impose liability on equine owners and equine facility owners. An equine owner is not liable for an injury or death of a person if that: (1) person has taken control of the equine; (2) the person or legal guardian has signed a release before taking control of the equine; (3) the owner properly installed suitable tack or equipment; and (4) the owner assigned a suitable equine to the person based on a reasonable interpretation of the skills, health, experience and knowledge of equines. An owner/lessor of a riding stable, rodeo ground, training or boarding stable or private property that a rider or handler uses with or without permission is not liable for injury or death of the equine, rider or handler. This limited liability does not apply where the owner is grossly negligent or commits willful, wanton or intentional acts or omissions or the stable/rodeo ground owner/lessor knows or should know that a hazardous condition exists and the owner/lessor did not disclose the hazardous condition.
People wrongfully assume that A.R.S. § 12-553 provides them absolute immunity from liability. That belief is wrong and can be costly. In Bothell v. Two Point Acres, Inc., 192 Ariz. 313, 965 P.2d 47 (App. 1998), the Court held that the statute did not apply to non-riding activities. In Bothell, the parents of a minor child filed a personal injury action against a stable owner and its operators when their daughter was injured when taking an equine from the corral to a grassy area to eat. The injured minor was participating in an after school riding program at the stable, but the equine she rode was lame at the time. She was injured by a different equine. The stable argued that A.R.S. § 12-553 applied to limit its liability because the minor had taken control of the horse. The parents signed a release of liability, but argued that A.R.S. § 12-553 and the release did not apply because the minor was not injured while engaged in a riding activity, but in a separate activity unrelated to riding with a totally different equine.
The Court in conducting its analysis noted that the legislative history behind the statute is scant and did not sufficiently articulate the intended scope of the statute as applied to stable owners and operators. The Court concluded that the statute did not apply to non-riding activities. The Court relied on two requirements set forth in A.R.S. § 12-553 for its conclusion: (1) the operator must provide proper tack; and (2) the operator must select an appropriate equine for the rider given the rider’s skill and experience. The Court concluded that these requirements would make no sense if the statute applied to non-riding activities. The Court further held that this limited interpretation was in accord with public policy construing a release strictly against the drafter of the document and against the party that is receiving the release because the law disfavors contractual provisions immunizing persons against the consequences of their own torts.
Bothell is a warning that an equine and stable owner cannot count on A.R.S. § 12-553 to provide them unconditional protection from liability. It is critical that the equine and stable owner maintain sufficient insurance to protect them from liability even with the protection provided by A.R.S. § 12-553. To ensure adequate protection take the time to think critically about the activities that you are engaged in and the risk of those activities that you need protection from. This should always include a discussion with your counsel to ensure that you are fully apprised of any new liability cases. Then, take your insurance policy(s) to your agent/broker and ask them to show you the specific policy provisions that establish: (1) your horses/business are covered; (2) the horses/business are covered under the policy(s) wherever the incident takes place; and (3) the horses/business are covered regardless of who is riding or the activity involved. Then immediately ask your agent to raise your policy’s liability limits and look into an umbrella policy. Do not take the cheap way out as paying a few extra dollars for insurance can save you in the long run. More importantly, go through this process every year as part of you yearly due diligence. Do not assume that the coverage that you had last year will protect you the following year. Confirm, confirm and confirm.