Injured Child Visiting Stable with Family Was Still a “Participant” Under Equine Activity Liability Law

As of January 30, 2017, 47 states – all but California, Maryland, and New York – have passed some form of an Equine Activity Liability Act (“EALA”). These laws sometimes share common characteristics, but all of them differ. Most follow a pattern that prevents an “equine activity sponsor,” “equine professional,” or possibly others from being sued if a “participant” who “engages in an equine activity” suffers injury, death or damage from an “inherent risk.”

Lawsuits sometimes focus on whether an injured visitor at a stable or event qualifies as an “equine activity participant” and whether that person’s case is properly dismissed based on immunities in a state EALA. On January 9, 2017, the New Jersey Court of Appeals looked at the issue of whether that state’s EALA – called the Equestrian Activities Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 5:15 1 to 12 – applied to a minor who accompanied family members to a horse stable but took no part in any horse-related activities there. The plaintiff in that case was a nine year-old boy who joined his mother and older sister at a stable. On the day of the incident, he was not riding or handling a horse. As he walked down a barn aisle, a horse in one of the stalls reached out its head and bit him, causing injuries. His mother, at the time, was cleaning a horse stall nearby.

For the law to apply, the plaintiff needed to qualify as a “participant.” That law defined a “participant” as:

any person, whether an amateur or professional, engaging in an equine animal activity, whether or not a fee is paid to engage in the equine animal activity or, if a minor, the natural guardian, or trainer of that person standing in loco parentis, and shall include anyone accompanying the participant, or any person coming onto the property of the provider of equine animal activities or equestrian area whether or not an invitee or person pays consideration.

Emphasis added. Although New Jersey’s EALA states that “participants” and “spectators” assume the risk of equine animal activities [N.J.S.A. 5:15-3], it also states, in part:

The assumption of risk set forth in . . . this act shall be a complete bar of suit and shall serve as a complete defense to a suit against an operator by a participant for injuries resulting from the assumed risv ks, notwithstanding the provisions of P.L.1973, c. 146 (C.2A:15-5.1 et seq.) relating to comparative negligence. . . .

Emphasis added. Although the plaintiff argued that the EALA’s immunities were inapplicable to him because he was not there for “equine-related purposes,” the Court rejected this because the EALA defined “participant” to extend to people “accompanying” the participant. That day, his mother and older sister were “participants” because his mother gave a riding lesson and cleaned her horse’s stall, and his sister fed horses. As a result, the Court ruled that the boy was a “participant,” as well, and his lawsuit against the stable was properly dismissed.

The case was: Kirkpatrick v. Hidden View Farm, New Jersey Court of Appeals, 1/9/2017.