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Liability Traps for Stable Owners and Lessors

The informality that rules most horse transactions does not serve participants well when the matter at hand concerns the ownership or leasing of a stable. Many trainers will lease a barn or a portion of a barn in order to run a business out of that premises, and without appropriate contracts, can subject the landowner to unforeseen liability. Or, a trainer can lease premises that are rundown or needing repair and come to grief from injuries to people or animals that occur due to a failure of an existing condition, about which the trainer cannot make changes, because they do not own the land or have the right under the lease to make or demand needed repairs. Rarely do landowner, trainers, or stable proprietors typically take the time or money to invest in a commercial lease, such as is commonly engaged in other business contexts, despite the increased risks that occur in and around horses. This attitude is unfortunate, because many states do not protect either stable owners or equine professionals from dangerous "latent" conditions existing on the land.

Forty six states across the nation have what is commonly called an "equine liability protection statute" which provides liability protections for those engaged in the horse industry. However, typically, those statutes do not protect anyone who owns, leases, rents, has authorized use of, or is otherwise in lawful possession and control of the land or facilities where a dangerous latent condition exists, which was known to the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or person, and for which warning signs, pursuant to subsection (d), have not been conspicuously posted.

So what is a "dangerous latent condition" under the law? In one Massachusetts case that discussed the issue in an equine context, a gate in disrepair allowed an aggressive horse to enter an area where the plaintiff was riding, and the ensuing altercation injured the rider. The case was dismissed on other grounds, but with the observation from the court that if the plaintiff had alleged that the gate was a "dangerous latent condition" in its original complaint that the result may have been different.

Typically, the duties of the landowner and the duties of the person or entity leasing the premises need to be spelled out in writing as part of the contract. The particulars of the lease depend on the individual needs of the participants, but a typical lease might spell out the following obligations:

  • Assigning responsibility for the specific areas on the property that will be controlled or maintained; parties need to remember that areas of shared responsibility will convey shared liability in the event of a problem. For example, if both parties are responsible for shoveling the snow off of the walkways, both will be liable in the event of a slip and fall;
  • Discussing insurance;
  • Awarding indemnification for a party who is dragged into a lawsuit as a result of the other parties' business operations;
  • Discussing environmental concerns and duties, including manure removal;
  • Giving the parties remedies in the event of a breach of the agreement;
  • Awarding court costs and lawyer's fees in the event of willful breaches of the agreement;
  • Discussing payment arrangements and notice requirements.

As always, consult an expert when considering embarking on any particular venture. Informality is a comfort among friends, but "friendship" withers in a hurry when trouble strikes in a business context.

Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.

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