Are you going to a horse-related event:  horse show, rodeo, polo match or horse race?, If so, you are one of thousands of people coming into close proximity with a variety of animals, from race horses to jumpers to bucking bulls.  Spectators are generally a mix of both inexperienced and horse-savvy people, creating a unique challenge for the facilities and associations that host these events.  People attending horse-related events may not know to avoid walking behind a horse waiting to enter the arena.  Equine liability statutes that protect owners and their agents generally do not cover spectators; so, facilities’ owners and show associations need to take care to reasonably ensure the safety of spectators.

Equine Liability Statutes:  Most states have laws that protect the owners, but not from their own gross negligence and not if they know about hazardous conditions that they do not disclose.  Every facility owner should know if an equine liability statute is in force in your state and what it covers.  Equine liability statutes are designed to limit liability for horse owners and facilities if a participant in an equine activity is injured or killed and typically focus on “assumption of risk”, meaning a person that chooses to directly interact with horses is said to have assumed the risk of injury or death that is an inherent danger of horse-related activities.  Spectators that don’t directly engage with horses are usually not prevented from bringing suit.  For example, Colorado’s law specifies that spectators are not “engaging in equine activity” unless the spectator enters an unauthorized area.  Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-119 (1992). 

Premises Liability:  If a spectator is injured at your facility or show, that spectator may file suit for negligence based on premises liability. Negligence or “lack of due care” claims against equine facilities or show associations generally involve two types of allegations:  

  1. Unsafe Premises. Injured spectators often allege that inadequate fencing, gates, or other “defects” on the show premises resulted in their injuries.  If any accidents or injuries have occurred in the past, you need to take additional precautions to prevent similar accidents in the future.  You should repair any known problems prior to an event, inspect the entire premises regularly, and perhaps re-think the safety standards and modifications made to accommodate specific events (such as temporary pens).
  • When a bronc rider was thrown out of the arena and onto a rodeo fan seated next to the arena, the association and the rodeo producer were found negligent.  The producer was negligent for arranging temporary seating within three feet of the arena fence, while the association was negligent for approving the seating arrangement.  Creel v. Washington Parish Fair Ass’n, 597 So. 2d 487 (La. Ct. App. 1992). 

Additionally, hosting events involving “dangerous” or “vicious” animals requires a higher level of care. If you host events that require undomesticated or additional livestock, such as rodeos, cutting events or team roping, you may be held to a higher safety standard.  Consider these examples:

  • A bucking bull broke through the fence and injured a rodeo spectator seated in the bleachers.  The rodeo sponsor was held liable for negligence because the un-reinforced chain link fence was inadequate to contain a “dangerous” animal.  Tom v. Days of ’47, Inc.,401 P.2d 946 (Utah 1965).
  • A rodeo promoter was not liable to a spectator that was injured when a saddle bronc broke through an arena gate and struck him, because the promoter was able to show the gate was secured and maintained in a reasonably safe manner.  Mahan v. Hall, 897 S.W.2d 571 (Ark. 1995).

While industry insiders may not consider horses and cattle dangerous or vicious, the general public (and the courts) may see things differently.  For example:

  • Several festival-goers were injured when a cart pony bolted after allegedly being stung by a bee.  The festival operator was found negligent for allowing the pony cart to operate in a large crowd in an area with “an unusually high number of bees,” despite evidence that the 15-20 year old pony was gentle.  Dahlberg v. Mid-America Festivals Corp., 367 N.W.2d 112 (Minn. Ct. App. 1985). 
  1. Failure to Warn. An injured spectator may claim the facility owner had a duty to warn of the risks associated with the event.   If the spectator’s injury is a result of your failure to warn of danger, you may be found negligent.  You may be able to avoid failure to warn claims by posting warning signs and facility rules throughout the premises.  Additionally, making sure competitors and spectators follow the posted rules will help prevent this type of claim.  Consider the following: 
  • A rodeo company posted signs stating “do not tie horses to the fence,” but a lack of enforcement meant it had become common practice.  When a spectator stuck his hands through the fence, a horse tied there in violation of the rule pulled back and severed several of the spectator’s fingers. The rodeo company was held liable for negligence.  Goettsch v. El Capitan Stadium Ass’n, No. D047921, 2007 WL 1705664, at *1 (Cal. Ct. App. June 14, 2007).
  • A boy was killed while standing in a “restricted area” when a bucking bull jumped the arena gate and landed on him.  While the “restricted area” was not cordoned off, the announcer made repeated public warnings and uniformed security warned bystanders that the area was restricted. His father was unsuccessful in claiming negligence against the rodeo company.  Ross v. Golden State Rodeo Co., 530 P.2d 1166 (Mont. 1974).
  • Some states, such as Colorado and Michigan, require horse facilities to post signs regarding the inherent risks of participating in equine activities as part of their equine liability law and bar claims by spectators if they are injured while in an unauthorized area. See, e.g., Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-119 (1992); Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § § 691.1661-1667 (West 1995).

Preventive Practices:The laws relating to spectator liability for horse-related events vary from state to state, but a few practical precautions may go a long way towards preventing injuries and potential lawsuits: 

  • Maintain and Repair Your Facility. Regularly inspect your facility, including fences, gates, and livestock pens, to make sure it is adequately secure.  If you host events with “dangerous” or undomesticated animals, consider reinforcing the pens and arenas.
  • Post Warning Signs and Rules. Post your state’s equine liability statute, if it has one.  In addition, establish safety rules and clearly mark areas that are “exhibitor only.”
  • Buy Insurance. Commercial liability insurance is available on an annual basis, or you can purchase it for a specific event.  Pay attention, however, to the language of the policy and make sure it covers both participants and spectators.
  • Additional Considerations. If you are in the business of hosting horse-related events, talk with your attorney about additional ways to avoid spectator liability.  Steps relating to entity formation (such as a limited liability company) or printing a waiver on the back of event tickets may make a difference if a dispute arises.