by Stephanie Lawson
Governor Rendell signed SB 618, the Equine Activities Liability Act (EALA) proposed and supported by the Pennsylvania Equine Council, into law on December 23. Now known as Act 93, it will take effect February 23.
At a ceremonial signing on opening day of the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Gov. Rendell said, "The horse industry has been a tremendous economic force in Pennsylvania's economy. From the most prestigious equestrian events to breeding farms, the industry that helped build this state and country, and provided the first means of transportation and labor, deserves the protection of the measure I have signed into law."
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Waugh and 17 others at the behest of the Pennsylvania Equine Council, was passed 48-0 by the Senate on December 5 and 195-1 by the House on December 14. Senator Waugh and Rep. Fred McIllhattan, a longtime friend of the PEC, pulled members out of their offices and went to extraordinary lengths to ensure a 'yes' vote on the legislation. Pennsylvania is the 45th state to adopt an EALA.
The PEC worked for sixteen years to pass an EALA. PEC Legislative Committee chair Rob Hoffa, an equine attorney, and the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, which has long opposed passage of an 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 in November.
Act 93 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. Passage of the bill should increase the number of carriers offering liability insurance to stable owners, and the competition should make insurance more affordable. Waugh said his legislation would ease the burden these costs place on horse and stable owners.
Senate Bill 618 and House Bill 619, expanding the state's farmland preservation program to include commercial equine activity, were equine-friendly components of the Farmers First Agenda, a comprehensive package of legislation introduced in June to promote agriculture in Pennsylvania. House Bill 619 was signed into law November 1.
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 signs as required would not be covered. Nor are stables or individuals who are negligent.
The non-profit PEC has ordered signs that comply with the act, which it will begin selling via mail in mid-February. For information visit www.pennsylvaniaequinecouncil.com. The signs will also be available at the Pennsylvania Equine Council booth at Pennsylvania Horse World Expo, Feb. 24-26. Pre-orders are encouraged.
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.
Passage of an EALA can provide a level of comfort, especially for owners of smaller operations, said Amy Stegall, president of the Connecticut Horse Council. The CHC passed a law similar to Pennsylvania's in 1994. "Anecdotally, it has allowed people to expand their operations or add facets they might otherwise not have felt comfortable with," she said. "It gives people a greater sense of security. They feel they can start offering lessons or take on boarders without risking everything.
"Passing an EALA is not a cakewalk. It takes a lot of effort. We were astonished at how quickly yours passed. We are thrilled to see Pennsylvania join the majority of states that have one.
"Every good law we get helps the entire horse industry," she said.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT ACT 93 OF 2005,
THE EQUINE ACTIVITY IMMUNITY ACT
(FORMERLY KNOWN AS SENATE BILL 618)
1. How do I know if the Act applies to me?
The Act applies to any individual, group, club or business that sponsors, organizes, conducts or provides facilities for an equine activity. The Act has specific definitions of what constitutes an equine activity. Among those definitions are boarding equines, including daily care as well as leading, handling, or grooming an equine, trail riding and most types of horse shows.
2. How do I get the protection of the Act?
The Act has specific requirements that you post a minimum of two signs, 2 feet by 3 feet, in two or more locations on your facility which contains the specific language "You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania Law". If you do not have those signs, you lose the protection afforded by the Act. In addition to the signs, you must be involved in an equine activity as defined by the Act. For example, you have a horse for sale. A prospective buyer comes to your property to ride the horse in making a decision on whether or not to purchase it. If that person is injured while evaluating the horse, you would be protected under the Act so long as you have the required signs.
3. Do I need a Release?
The Act does not specifically require written releases. However, the Act bars liability for negligence when the person injured knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of the injury. Releases that outline the inherent risks involved in horseback riding would be additional evidence that the person injured knew of the risk involved.
4. How do I know whether the person that was injured voluntarily assumed the risk of injury or death?
You have to be able to prove that the person that was injured knew of the inherent risks involved in horseback riding or equine activities. A release which outlines inherent risks of the horseback riding activity would be a good indication and could be used as evidence to prove that the person knew of the dangers involved. Also, the person's experience in handling, riding or dealing with horses would be useful evidence that they voluntarily assumed the risk of injury.
5. Does this Act apply to minors?
No. The Act specifically states that it applies to adults that participate in equine activities. However, the Act does not affect the common law assumption of risk as it applies to minors. A minor, experienced in equine activities, may still be found to have assumed the risk of injury of an equine activity. The difference would be that the assumption of risk would not be under this Act.
6. Now that we have an Equine Activity Immunity Act, does that mean I do not need insurance?
No. The Act does not prevent someone from filing a claim against you regardless of whether the claim has merit or not. The Act provides you with a defense to a claim if you comply with the terms of the Act. The litigation process is extremely expensive and for that reason, you should consider maintaining an insurance policy to cover liability for equine activity related injuries.
7. Since the bill is "an immunity bill" does that mean I automatically win?
No. In order to win a lawsuit under this Act, you must comply with the terms of the Act (i.e. signs). In addition, you need to be able to prove that the participants knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of the injury or death. There are certain inherent risks involved in equine activities. Those risks do not include you providing faulty tack, equipment or a horse that is not rideable. Under those situations, the Act would probably not protect you from liability as you would probably be found to have been negligent.
These Frequently Asked Questions were prepared by Robert A. Hoffa, Esquire.
DISCLAIMER: The material contained in these frequently asked questions is intended to provide general information concerning Pennsylvania's new Equine Activity Immunity Act. It is NOT intended to express any legal opinion or provide any legal advice with respect to the actual or expected interpretation of this Act. It is recommended that you seek counsel from your attorney in order for you to fully understand your legal rights and responsibilities under the Equine Activity Immunity Act, Act 93 of 2005.
Copyright Robert A. Hoffa, Esquire, 2006.