by Stephanie Lawson
On November 15, the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee reported out of committee legislation that would protect the state's equine industry from excessive insurance costs and lawsuits. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mike Waugh (R-York) and 17 others, was spearheaded by the Pennsylvania Equine Council (PEC).
On December 5, the state Senate passed the bill 48-0. It now goes to the state House of Representatives.
For sixteen years, legislation that would provide a measure of immunity against lawsuits for those who own horses or who conduct equine activities has been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature. Each of the previous bills died in committee without consideration. Pennsylvania is one of only six states that does not offer some sort of immunity to its equine industry.
Pennsylvania Equine Council Legislative Committee chair Rob Hoffa, an equine attorney, and the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, which has long opposed passage of an Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), succeeded this fall in reaching a compromise. As a result, SB 618, which was introduced in April 2005, was amended and brought before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it was reported out of committee.
Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R, Montgomery County), who chairs the committee, noted that discussion on such a bill had continued for a number of years. He thanked both parties for resolving their issues and achieving a compromise. The bill was reported out of committee without discussion.
Senate Bill 618 limits civil liability for injury or death that occurs in connection with equine activity. The bill protects owners from lawsuits where no party is at fault for injury or damages.
"Equine activity involves natural risks, and equine owners should not be forced to bear the entire burden of that risk," said Waugh, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. "We have been working on this issue for some time, and I am hopeful that we can provide this important protection for our equine owners in the very near future."
Pennsylvania is one of just six states that does not limit liability on equine activities. This substantially limits the number of insurance carriers that offer liability insurance to stable owners and raises rates, making it unaffordable for most small barn owners and operators. Waugh said his legislation would ease the burden these costs place on horse and stable owners.
Senate Bill 618 is part of the Farmers First Agenda, a comprehensive package of legislation introduced in June to promote agriculture in Pennsylvania. Senate Bill 618 was only one part of the Farmers First agenda that would benefit the state's equine industry. House Bill 619, legislation that would expand the state's farmland preservation program to include commercial equine activity, was signed into law November 1.
Waugh thanked the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and the Pennsylvania Equine Council for their assistance in drafting the compromise language in Senate Bill 618, and for their perseverance on the issue.
Assumption of Risk
The bill addresses individuals, businesses and groups that sponsor, organize, conduct or provide the facilities for equine activity. It uses "assumption of risk," a legal doctrine that a plaintiff is not entitled to compensation if, knowing of a dangerous condition, he voluntarily exposed himself to the risk that resulted in injury. A defense raised in personal injury lawsuits, it asserts that the plaintiff knew that a particular activity was dangerous and thus bears all responsibility for any injury that resulted.
The bill specifies that stables must conspicuously post signs in two or more locations that read, "You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania law." Stables that do not post the sign as required would not be covered. Nor are stables or individuals who are negligent.
EALAs do not stop lawsuits, but they discourage frivolous lawsuits and make it easier to dispose of actions early in the legal process, reducing the expense and the stress for those who are sued. In the 44 states that have an EALA on the books, lawsuits are often dismissed on the strength of the state's EALA, and those decisions are often upheld in the appeals process.
An EALA makes it more likely that insurance companies will write liability
policies for stables, and it decreases the cost of those policies. The
alternative—a situation which has been in place in Pennsylvania for
decades--is to discourage the interaction of horses and the public, which
works to the detriment of the horse industry.