In order to understand how New Jersey’s equestrian limited liability law works, it helps to know its history. Lawmakers took steps to protect equestrian facilities because these activities bring a large number of residents to the state and significantly contribute to the state’s economy. Because these activities are naturally dangerous, they argued that equine operators should have limited protection from civil liability to preserve the economic viability of the industry in New Jersey.
It is important that anyone unfamiliar with riding a horse or even the particular horse provided to them understand the inherent risks and no one should allow someone to understate the risk of the activity. While immunity is never in the public interest, the benefits of equine activity and the benefits to participants were balanced against the inherent unpredictability of a horse that can become startled unexpectedly or trip and fall causing injury to the rider or other equestrian participants. Although the Equine Immunity Act provides limited protection from lawsuits for trainers and stable operators, there are exceptions to this immunity when an injury occurs where the responsible parties can be held financially accountable for the cost of the accident.
What is the New Jersey Equine Activities Liability Act?
State lawmakers passed the New Jersey Equine Activities Liability Act in 1998. The Legislature enacted this equine activity statute to protect horsemen, camps, stables, and other horse providers from certain types of lawsuits arising out of unavoidable horse accidents. The statute provides that a person may not bring a lawsuit if the accident resulted from an inherent risk of equine activities. The statute also spells out what risks — such as providing defective tack or failing appropriately to match horse and rider — are not inherent and therefore do not protect the trainer or stable operator from liability.
Cases of exceptions that create liability?
An injured rider was successful in holding an equine facility accountable for an injury in Stoffels v. Harmony Hill Farm. The equine facility paired the rider, who had some health problems, with a new horse that was recently broken in. This was considered an inappropriate match of horse and rider. She argued that a jury could find the victim was injured after the horse threw her from her saddle due to the horse owner’s negligence in selecting that horse for that rider. The Appellate Division agreed and stated the case should move forward showing that a victim can hold the owner accountable when the owner’s negligence contributes to an injury.
In another case, Hubner v. Spring Valley Equestrian Center, the court recognized the ambiguity of the law. Even with the language of the law, accepting inherent risk does not translate to acceptance of all risk. The court ultimately stated that facility owners must provide a safe environment. The presence of a bar that tripped a horse and injured the rider did not meet this expectation. Thus, it is possible for a victim to build a successful case and hold the equine facility responsible after an injury.
The New Jersey Equine Liability Act seeks to strike a balance between the enjoyment of a sport with inherent risks and the right to recover for injuries when the trainer or stable operator fails to provide a safe horse, safe equipment or a safe environment.