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HORSES : Equine Groups Unite in Effort to Rein In Civil Liability

April 22, 1993|DARLENE RICKER | Darlene Ricker, a Laguna Beach equine law attorney and author of several books on equestrian sports, is not involved in the Tolson case.

It's a sign commonly posted--and ignored--at riding areas: "Ride at your own risk." But what does it mean?

Not much, if you ask Grace Tolson, owner of Dickson Ranch, a boarding stable in Northern California. But she's trying to make it mean something for stable owners and landowners throughout the state.

A six-generation ranch family, the Tolsons have long allowed trainers and equestrians access to their ranch, with the sign posted. Then the inevitable happened: An 11-year-old rider fell and broke her arm.

The Tolsons have found themselves on the receiving end of a personal-injury lawsuit filed by the rider's parents that threatens to shut down the family ranch. The suit didn't specify damages; the plaintiffs are waiting to see how high the medical bills climb.

But a year after the incident and more than $10,000 out of pocket in legal fees, the Tolsons are as perplexed as ever.

"The horse was standing still when the girl reached down to adjust her stirrup. She lost her balance and fell off," Tolson said. "Things like that happen. When are people going to accept some responsibility for riding a horse?"

It is a question those in the horse industry have long pondered--and now are trying to do something about. Equine groups statewide, including some from Orange County, have banded together to back Tolson's recent move to propose legislation to limit civil liability in equine activities.

Tolson anticipates some opposition.

"The lawyers will fight this legislation because they are the real winners in (personal) injury lawsuits," she said. "They would say it interferes with the rights of the injured party."

She has, however, enlisted the aid of a lawyer to draft and present a bill to the state Legislature. Patterned after legislation recently enacted in Washington, Colorado and Massachusetts, the proposal would limit but not eliminate the civil liability of those in the horse industry.

As Tolson discovered, liability insurance is no guarantee that a facility will be protected in case of an injury. She said her ranch had extensive coverage but that the insurance company went bankrupt and paid her nothing.

"We will continue to have insurance to take care of someone in the event of true negligence on the ranch," Tolson said. "But falling off a horse in the middle of the arena should not constitute negligence."

She maintains that the horse industry is different from any other hobby or sport because "part of the equation is a 1,000-pound animal with a brain. No one can predict what that brain will decide to do under any number of circumstances.

"Every time someone falls off a horse, the horse is suddenly called dangerous," she said. "But all horses are dangerous. What's the point in saying horses are dangerous after an injury? Let's say it before the injury."

The proposed bill says precisely that. It acknowledges that injuries may occur to participants because of the "inherent risks" in equine activities. However, it does not exclude civil liability for defective equipment or extreme negligence on the part of those in the horse industry (such as providing an unsafe horse or maintaining a dangerous condition on the stable property). It also excludes the racing industry, which is subject to extensive state regulation.

For more information on the proposed bill, contact Grace Tolson, P.O. Box 46, Woodacre, Calif. 94973, or call (415) 488-0454.

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