Despite our best efforts, horses and accidents are, unfortunately, related subjects. When my daughter was learning to ride, she was told that she wouldn't be a real horseperson until she had fallen off a horse at least five times. (Needless to say, Dad wasn't the one who mentioned this to her.)
I've lost track of the number of times I've found myself in midair with no horse underneath me. In saner moments, I've wondered why I even bother to own horses. But own horses we do, in numbers large enough to make horse ownership a significant industry.
According to Sports Injuries, a book published in 1985, "[horseback] riding, motorcycling and automobile racing are the three most dangerous sports." Most of the time mishaps aren't very serious and hurt only our pride. But sometimes accidents cause serious injuries and these, of course, can incur large medical expenses and lead to lawsuits.
"Well," you might say, "that's what insurance is for." And I wouldn't disagree. But as the following cases illustrate, when it comes to insurance coverage it's best not to take protection for granted.
In Black and White
Insurance policies are contracts between an insurance company and the insured. The policy covers exactly what is written within this contract.
Case in point: Melvin had gone horseback riding while his son, Larry, went into town. When Larry returned, he saw his father's horse returning to the barn, riderless. Larry found his father lying in the mud, dead.
Melvin had an accidental death insurance policy for the benefit of his wife. An autopsy was performed and disclosed that he had suffered a coronary ischemia (deficiency in blood flow), which the doctor believed caused him to fall from his horse. The fall caused him to break four ribs and develop internal bleeding. The doctor testified that his heart beat for five to 10 minutes after his fall. Larry also testified that his father was riding a high-spirited former racehorse, who--he could tell from the tracks--had jumped sideways when Melvin fell.
The question was whether Melvin died due to chest trauma from the fall or from the coronary ischemia. The chest trauma would have been sufficient to cause his death. If Melvin could have survived the coronary ischemia, but not the chest trauma, then the insurance company has to pay his widow. If he would have died from the coronary ischemia, then the insurance company doesn't have to pay. Insurance companies are very specific about what is covered in their policies.
What's Not Covered?
Exclusions are an important part of an insurance policy. They work by saying that the insurance company covers everything in the policy except for what is listed in the exclusions.
Case in point: Cage was at a stable to transport and assist a riding student. While walking in the barn, he was hit in the back of the head by a hay bale tossed down from the loft by an employee of the stable. At the time of the accident, the stable procured its insurance through an insurance agent, who had obtained the stable's policy through an insurance company. Cage sued the stable and was awarded $95,000 in damages. The stable assigned its claim with the insurance company for Cage to collect on the insurance. Unfortunately for Cage and the stable, there was a minor problem with the insurance. The stable had a farm owner's policy, a horse van policy and a worker's compensation policy, but the agent, during the year in question, had been unable to procure a stable liability policy. It's not clear from the decision whether the stable knew this. The farm owner's policy had a horse exclusion endorsement that read: "It is agreed that the insurance does not apply to bodily injury or property damage arising out of the maintenance, ownership, or use of horses."
This meant that the farm owner's policy did not cover any claims involving horses, so Cage could not collect from the insurance company for his claim. In effect, because of the exclusion, the stable had no liability insurance.
As a general rule, insurance companies presume that you are a business if you are involved in a moneymaking activity. Most homeowner's policies will not cover a business activity. Unless a liability policy specifically includes business activities, any business activities will be excluded from the insurance policy.
Case in point: Dolosich responded to an advertisement in a local paper to rent a horse at a local stable. When she arrived at the property, she saw a sign advertising the stable. Dolosich met with Rosborough, who informed Dolosich that she ran the stable, which was owned by the Steczes.
Eventually, Dolosich leased a horse named Zack for $150 a month, payable to the stable. She rode Zack several times a week and on those occasions noticed other people who boarded at the stable either riding or grooming their horses. While riding in the indoor arena, Dolosich was injured when she and Zack were attacked by another horse. She sued as a result of her injuries.
Rosborough testified that she had approached the Steczes about renting one of their barns, but found that the rental price was too high. Subsequently, Rosborough and the Steczes had further discussions that resulted in the three of them starting a boarding stable on the Steczes' property with Rosborough running the business. Mrs. Stecze decided on a name for the stable and painted the sign that was posted at the end of the driveway. She also opened a bank account under her husband's name doing business as the stable. Rosborough testified that she and the Steczes had discussed business liability insurance when they started their stable, but decided that the cost was too expensive.
When Mr. Stecze contacted his insurance company after the accident, it refused to provide coverage because his homeowner's policy did not cover business pursuits. This is a normal exclusion in a homeowner's policy. Further, Rosborough's testimony would indicate that the Steczes knew that the policy would not cover her. For these reasons, the insurance company had no duty to cover the Steczes after this accident.
Home and Away
Many homeowner's policies contain an exclusion for accidents that happen away from the home, at a show or other event, or those that involve an escaped horse.
Case in point: The Herouxes' horse escaped from its pasture and collided with a motor vehicle, causing injury to the driver. The Herouxes asked their insurance company to defend them. It refused, saying that, based upon language in the policy, a horse was not covered when the animal was off their property.
The court noted, however, that the policy covered any injury caused by an animal owned by the insured, which would include a collision with the horse and automobile.
Despite the exclusion for accidents off the premises, it was clear if the entire policy was reviewed that a collision between a horse and automobile was covered. Although this case was about a horse that had escaped and the court found for the horse owners, people who take their horses off of their property, whether for trail rides, shows, or any other reason, should review their policy to make sure that they will be covered.
A stable's insurance might not cover a boarder's horse or equipment.
Case in point: Erickson boarded his show horse and kept his tack and trailer at a stable owned by Carhart. A fire occurred at the stable that killed the horse, destroyed Erickson's tack and damaged his trailer. In court, Erickson received a judgment in the amount of $26,689 against Carhart, which he attempted to collect from Carhart's insurance company.
The insurance company denied coverage because the policy did not cover "personal property" that was not owned or used by Carhart. This meant that Carhart's insurance company covered neither Erickson's horse nor equipment and Carhart was responsible for paying the judgment.
Just Between Friends?
Just as with homeowner's liability insurance, automobile insurance usually doesn't cover business uses. Unfortunately, when you hire a friend to transport a horse, you become involved in a business transaction, and your insurance company may no longer provide coverage.
Case in point: Viola was paid $45 by her friend McPherson to transport McPherson's horse. After the horse was loaded in Viola's trailer, Viola left the farm with McPherson following behind the trailer. Within five minutes, the horse fell in the trailer when its foot became caught in the manger. Viola stopped her vehicle, and she and McPherson attempted to release the horse. During the process, McPherson's ring finger got caught between the horse and the partition, resulting in a partial amputation of the finger.
Viola's insurance company denied coverage based upon the fact that the vehicle was being used to carry property for a fee. This is a very common exclusion with automobile insurance. A horse is property and Viola received a fee, so the exclusion clearly applied.
In insuring horse trailers, issues can arise regarding both coverage and the worth of the trailer.
Case in point: When Heaton's horse trailer was stolen, he requested that his automobile insurance company cover the loss. His policy required that covered automobiles and trailers be specifically listed on the policy. He didn't have the horse trailer listed and therefore it was not covered. He attempted to argue that the horse trailer was attached equipment and covered under that portion of his policy.
The court, however, in looking at that provision, determined that it applied to items that were permanently attached to the vehicle such as a cassette player but would not include the tapes that went into the radio. The relationship between a horse trailer and a vehicle was too tenuous for Heaton to reasonably believe that the horse trailer was covered. Most automobile insurance policies cover attached equipment, but although a horse trailer attaches to a vehicle, it would not normally be considered "attached equipment."
Case in point: Simmons was towing a horse trailer borrowed from her friend when she was involved in an accident that damaged the trailer. Simmons' insurance company immediately paid out $500, which it said was the maximum under the policy. Simmons sued her insurance company to pay the balance of the damage.
According to the policy, utility trailers were limited to $500 in value. Included in the definition of utility trailers were farm wagons or farm implements. The court determined that a horse trailer fell into the category of utility trailers. Once the insurance company paid the policy limit to Simmons, it no longer had any obligation to her.
Adapted from Equine Liability: What Every Horse Owner Needs to Know, (2003); Carriage House Publishing, 223 Silver Street, Middleton, NH 03887; 603-755-4596.
This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of EQUUS magazine. Find 12 ways to keep your horse safe and protect yourself from a possible lawsuit in "Stop that Loose Horse" in the June 2006 issue of EQUUS.