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Equine Activity Liability Releases: The Arizona Court of Appeals Finds “Release” of Trail Ride Operator Doesn’t Block Negligence Claim for Participant Riding Injury

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By: Amanda Z. Weaver

For the first time in nearly twenty years, the Arizona Court of Appeals last week weighed in on Arizona’s equine activity liability statute, finding that a form signed by participants before a trail ride did not qualify as a “release” under the statute, and concluding that participants’ claims of negligence against the trail ride operators remained in the case.

In Gruver v. Wild Western Horseback Adventures, LLC, No. 1 CA-CV 20-0566 (Ariz. App. Aug. 17, 2021), two individuals participated in a trail ride after signing a “Visitor’s Acknowledgment of Risk,” which provided:

I assume full responsibility for personal injury to myself and/or to members of my family, or for loss or damage to my personal property and expenses thereof as a result of my negligence or the negligence of my family participating in said activity except to the extent such damage or injury may be due to the negligence of Red Rock Horseback Adv[.]

Id. ¶ 2.  During the trail ride, one plaintiff lost a stirrup, and a horse bit his leg.  Id. ¶¶ 4-5.  As the wrangler paused the ride to respond, the horse in front of the second plaintiff kicked her shin, breaking her tibia.  Id. ¶ 5.

The plaintiffs sued the trail ride operator for damages from the second plaintiff’s injury, asserting negligence, gross negligence, loss of consortium, and punitive damages.  The trial court decided summary judgment in favor of Wild Western Horseback Adventures, LLC (“Wild Western”), in part on the basis that the equine activity liability statute, A.R.S. § 12-553, eliminated plaintiffs’ negligence claim through their signed Acknowledgement.  Id. ¶¶ 6-7.

However, the Court of Appeals reversed on the negligence claim, finding that Wild Western’s Acknowledgement did not qualify as a “release” under the equine liability activity statute.  Specifically, the Court observed that the statute “lists four requirements for an equine owner to be released from the ordinary negligence claims of persons who the owner allows ‘to take control of an equine.’”  Id. ¶ 9 (quoting A.R.S. § 12-553(A)).

The requirements under the statute are:

(1) The person has taken control of the equine from the owner or agent when the injury or death occurs;

(2) The person has signed a release before taking control of the equine;

(3) The owner or agent has properly installed suitable tack or equipment or the person has personally tacked the equine with tack the person owned, leased or borrowed; and

(4) The owner or agent assigns the person to a suitable equine based on a reasonable interpretation of the person’s representation of his skills, health and experience with and knowledge of equines.

Although the plaintiffs had signed the Acknowledgement, the Court of Appeals concluded that they had not signed a “release” as defined by the statute.  The court looked to the definitions in A.R.S. § 12-553(E)(2), which defines a “release” as “a document that a person signs before taking control of an equine from the owner or owner’s agent and that acknowledges that the person is aware of the inherent risks associated with equine activities, is willing and able to accept full responsibility for his own safety and welfare and releases the equine owner or agent from liability unless the equine owner or agent is grossly negligent or commits wilful, wanton or intentional acts or omissions.”

Because the Acknowledgment released Wild Western only from negligence claims based on the plaintiff’s own negligence, and expressly preserved her right to sue for “damage or injury [that] may be due to the negligence of [Wild Western],” the court determined that the Acknowledgement did not qualify as a “release.”  Because of this, the Court of Appeals determined that the plaintiffs’ negligence claim was not eliminated by the statute.

As a memorandum decision, this case does not create binding legal authority.  However, its analysis suggests that courts will look at the contents of releases provided by owners or agents to those participating in activities under the statute.

A business, barn owner, or individual seeking to comply with Arizona’s equine activity liability statute may want to consider the contents of releases for signature given the Court of Appeals’ analysis in Gruver v. Wild Western Horseback Adventures, LLC.