The Virginia Equine Activity Liability Act (Virginia Code Section 3.2-6200 et. seq.) was passed by the General Assembly in 1991 to provide some liability protections for those who are involved in certain equine activities.  The Act has been changed through the years, but it remains a powerful shield for those engaged in a variety of horse-related activities.  The Act does not, however, provide blanket protection for all equine activities or all injuries.  While some of the protections of the Act do not require any action by participants, other protections are only granted when a participant signs a waiver of liability.

One of the two main purposes of the Act is to prohibit lawsuits from being filed by participants in equine activities who are injured or killed because of some risk that inherently exists within the equine activity itself.  To grasp the scope of the law, it is important to understand what these risks are, to whom the Act applies, the activities covered by the Act, and the steps that have to be taken to be protected under the Act.

The Act grants liability protection for those injuries or deaths resulting from the dangers that are “intrinsic” to equine activities. The Virginia Code states that those intrinsic dangers include the inherent propensity for horses to behave in unpredictable ways (such as being startled by noise, or unforeseen reactions to other objects or motion), certain hazards such as riding surface conditions, or the improper handling of a horse by fellow equine participants.    

The Act provides this liability protection to those who are “sponsors” of equine activities and other “equine professionals.”  Who is a sponsor?  In very general terms, a sponsor is any individual, corporation, limited liability company, trust, partnership, association, or group that organizes or provides facilities for equine activities.  This includes landowners and the operators, instructors, and promoters of equine facilities, including stables, riding schools, polo schools, hunt clubs, riding clubs, and any other facility where an equine activity is held.  It does not matter whether the sponsor organizes the activity or provides the facility in return for payment.

Also covered under the law are “equine professionals.” An equine professional is any person who provides instruction or rents horses in exchange for money.  Within the definition of an equine professional is anyone who rents equipment or tack to a participant in an equine activity.  An equine “participant” is any person, amateur or professional, who engages in an equine activity, whether or not a fee was paid to participate in the activity. 

The equine activities covered by the Act are fairly extensive.  These include, among other things, horse shows and competitions, polo, riding lessons, boarding, trail rides, hunts, training, and breeding.  The Act does not cover races on which pari-mutuel wagering is permitted. 

While the Act grants the basic liability protection described above to all without the requirement to obtain the participant’s signed consent, additional protections can be obtained by having participants sign a waiver.  As discussed, the protection above is only for injuries and deaths caused by the risks inherent to equine activities.  It does not cover situations in which a participant is hurt or killed because of someone’s negligence.   

The Act specifically allows participants to sue for injuries that are caused by any act or omission that constitutes negligence towards the safety of the participant; provided, however, that the participant did not sign a written waiver assuming those risks.  The waiver must meet specific criteria that are set out in the Virginia Code.  Even a small variation in the language used in the waiver may be ruled by a court as a failure to meet the legal requirements to gain this additional liability protection. While obvious, it is important to note that any intentional acts to harm a participant or knowingly providing faulty equipment or tack are not considered negligence.  A suit for injuries related to these intentional acts would not be prohibited by the Act, even in cases where there is a signed waiver.

If you are an individual or entity that sponsors equine activities, or are an equine professional, you should consult an attorney in order to understand the parameters of your liability and the possibility of having validly written waivers for participants in your activities.  If you participate in equine activities, you should consult with an attorney in order to understand your rights under the statute.

Mark F. Hyson, partner with Walker Jones, PC located in Warrenton and Washington, Virginia, is an AV-rated attorney with more than ten years of legal expertise.  His practice areas include Business Law, Real Estate Law, Estate Planning, Conservation Easements, and Real Property. 

Jonathan P. Lienhard, partner with Walker Jones, PC with offices in Warrenton and Washington, Virginia, is an AV-rated attorney with more than 15 years of legal experience.  His practice areas include Civil Litigation, Commercial Litigation, Criminal Law, and Business Law.