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Lawn Mower Spooks Horse – Georgia Court Dismisses Injured Rider’s Lawsuit

Spooking Horse Was an “Inherent Risk” and No “Willful or Wanton” Conduct Found

As of Aug. 1, 2015, 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.” The laws typically include a list of exceptions.

Does a horse bucking in reaction to a lawn mower qualify as an “inherent risk” for which the EALA might protect a horse owner from liability?

In March 2015, a Georgia trial court answered “yes” and dismissed a personal injury lawsuit. The case involved a rider with 20 years of experience who was riding the defendant’s horse at an equestrian center. During the ride, however, the defendant started a small riding lawn mower near the arena, giving no warning. Allegedly in response, the horse began bucking and kicking, causing the plaintiff to be thrown. She was injured and sued. Her lawsuit essentially blamed the defendant horse owner for starting the mower near the arena.

Inherent Risk

In defense, the horse owner invoked Georgia’s EALA and argued that the case should be dismissed. Georgia’s law states, in part, that an

equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, ... or any other person, ... shall not be liable for an injury to or the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities ... and, ... no participant or participant's representative shall make any claim against, maintain an action against, or recover from an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, ... or any other person for injury, loss, damage, or death of the participant resulting from any of the inherent risks of equine activities ....

Georgia’s EALA defined “inherent risks of equine activities” to include “the propensity of the animal to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around them” and “the unpredictability of the animal's reaction to such things as sounds, sudden movement, and unfamiliar objects, persons, or other animals.” Comparing this law to the facts, the Court found that the risk of a horse spooking from a mower was an “inherent risk” and, accordingly, the defendant was entitled to immunity.

No ‘Willful or Wanton Disregard’ for the Rider’s Safety

The plaintiff next argued that her case should still be maintained under an exception in Georgia’s EALA when a defendant engaged in “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant.” Disagreeing, the Court found that the facts did not measure up to the extreme degree of wrongdoing needed to support that type of liability. The Court explained that dismissal was appropriate because “[e]ven if [the case] presented an issue of negligence or even gross negligence, it has been repeatedly affirmed that this could not meet the ‘willful or wanton’ standard.”  The Court dismissed the case.

Assumption of Risk

Finally, the Court noted that Georgia’s doctrine of assumption of risk also supported dismissal of the injured rider’s lawsuit because she “had actual knowledge of the danger, understood and appreciated the risk of riding a horse, and voluntarily exposed herself to such risk.”

The case was: Morris v. Stephenson, Cobb County, Georgia, Civil Action No.: 13-A-2720-3. (Trial Court Ruling 3/27/2015).

Please keep in mind that laws differ nationwide. Direct your questions to a knowledgeable attorney. (The author, herself, fell from a horse years ago when it spooked from a lawn mower.)

Categories: Lawsuit, Liability, News & Events

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is considered to be one of the nation's leading attorneys in the field of equine law. A frequent author and speaker on legal issues, she has written over 400 published articles, three books, and has lectured at seminars, conventions, and conferences in 29 states on issues involving law, liability, risk management, and insurance. For more information, please also visit www.fershtmanlaw.com and www.equinelaw.net, and www.equinelaw.info.

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Julie Fershtman, author of our popular and prolific Equine Law Blog, was interviewed by the State Bar of Michigan. The interview, which called Fershtman "Lawyer-Blogger," discussed our Equine Law Blog. We truly believe that this blog is the nation's most active blog serving the equine industry on equine law topics, and we thank you for visiting it. Read more here.

Julie Fershtman’s Recent and Upcoming Equine Law Speaking Engagements Include:

National Conference on Equine Law in Louisville, Kentucky on April 29, 2020. Topic will be on Waivers/Releases of Liability Involving Minor Participants. 

U.S. Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) Annual Convention in Denver, Colorado on December 10, 2019. Topic will be on Equine Liability. 

IRMI Emmett J. Vaughan Agribusiness Conference (“AgriCon”) in Sacramento, CA (April 2019), and Richmond, VA (June 2019) and in Des Moines, IA (September 2019), on topics of “Equine Activity Liability Acts” and “Equine Mortality Insurance Disputes.”

National Conference on Equine Law in May 2019 in Lexington, KY, on the topic of “Equine Activity Liability Act Updates” and liabilities involving hosting of equine clinics. 

Agricultural Claims Conference in Kansas City, MO, in March 2019 on topics of “Loose Livestock Liabilities.”

2018 American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL, on “Equine Mortality Coverage and Disputes.”

November 2018, American Horse Council webinar on “Equine Liability.”

Honors & Recognitions

Equine lawyer, Julie Fershtman, has received these prestigious equine industry awards from respected equine organizations:

"Excellence in the Advancement of Animal Law Award" - American Bar Association Tort Trial & Insurance Law Section Animal Law Committee

"Distinguished Service Award" - American Youth Horse Council

"Industry Service Award" - Michigan Equine Partnership

"Catalyst Award"- Michigan Horse Council

"Outstanding Achievement Award" - American Riding Instructors Association 

"Partner in Safety Award" - American Riding Instructors Association 

"Associate Service Award" - United Professional Horseman's Association

"National Partnership in Safety" Award" - Certified Horsemanship Association 

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Litigating disputes in court or through alternative dispute resolution (arbitration, mediation, facilitation).

Defending equine/farm/equestrian industry professionals,  businesses, and associations in personal injury claims and lawsuits.

Drafting and negotiating contracts for boarding, training, sales, waivers/releases, leases, and numerous other equine-related transactions.

Representing and advising insurers on  coverage and policy language as well as litigation;

Advising equine industry clubs and associations regarding management, rules, bylaws, disputes, and regulations.

Representing some of the equine industry's top trainers, competitors, stables, and associations.

Counseling industry professionals, stable managers, and individual horse owners. 


Did you know Julie Fershtman has spoken at the American Horse Council Annual Meeting, Equine Affaire, Midwest Horse Fair, Equitana USA, US Dressage Federation Annual Meeting, North American Riding for the Handicapped (now PATH International) Annual Meeting, American Morgan Horse Association Annual Meeting, American Paint Horse Association Annual Meeting, US Pony Clubs, Inc.'s Annual Meeting, All-American Quarter Horse Congress, American Youth Horse Council Annual Meeting, American Riding Instructors Association Annual Meeting, CHA Annual Meeting, and numerous others? Consider signing her up for your convention. Contact Julie.

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