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New Jersey Appellate Divison Upholds Waiver of Injuries Sustained in Equine Accident

Blogs, Risk Management

In a recent unpublished decision, the New Jersey Superior Court,

Appellate Division upheld an exculpatory waiver of liability that barred a plaintiff’s claim against the farm where she boarded several of her thoroughbred horses. Polechek v. DMS Farms, LLC, et al., A-5875-08T3 (App. Div. March 30, 2010). 

In 2004, the plaintiff, a licensed horse trainer, contracted with the defendant to board several of her horses. While exercising one of her horses in 2005, the horse began running in the wrong direction around the track. The plaintiff became concerned the horse would escape through a gap in the trail around the track, and ran to the gap to block the horse’s exit. The horse ran over the plaintiff, causing her injuries. She sued the defendant and its owners for negligence, alleging that they had failed to maintain the outside rail of the track in such a manner that would have prevented her horse from escaping.

Upon initially contracting with the defendant, the plaintiff had executed a detailed release and hold harmless agreement, which released the defendants from any liability for injuries she might sustain during any equine activities on the defendants’ premises. The terms of the release stated:

1. I understand the potential danger that I could incur in mounting, riding, walking, boarding, feeding, training, grooming, swimming said horses, including but not limited to, any interactions with other horses. Understanding those risks I hereby release [the defendant], its officers, directors, shareholders, employees and anyone else directly or indirectly connected with [the defendant] from any liability whatsoever in the event of injury or damage of any nature (or perhaps even death) to me.

2. I understand and warrant that this Release and [H]old Harmless Agreement, is being voluntarily and intentionally signed and agreed to, and that in signing this Release and Hold Harmless Agreement I know and understand that this Release and Hold Harmless Agreement may further limit the liability of [the defendant] to include any activity, whatsoever, involving an equine, including death, personal injury and/or damage to property.

3. I further voluntarily agree and warrant to Release and Hold Harmless [the defendant] from any liability whatsoever, including, but not limited to, injuries, death or property damages from: mounting, riding, dismounting, walking, grooming, feeding, use of horse barn, paddocks, and farm property, and horse track in any capacity, including falling off whether the horse is bucking, flipping, [or] spooked.

The trial court granted summary judgment in the defendants’ favor, holding the release barred the plaintiff’s claims, despite her argument that the release did not unequivocally release the defendants from their own negligence. The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that that the release was sufficiently broad, and was not against public policy, and thus released the defendants’ from any liability for the accident.

It should be noted that New Jersey’s Equine Liability Statute, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 et seq. often provides a complete defense to personal injury suits against equine operators, subject to certain exceptions (such as when the operator provides faulty equipment, fails to make reasonable efforts to ascertain the participant’s ability, or when the plaintiff is injured by a known latent defect on the property). The Court in Polechek, however, noted that the plaintiff had not alleged that any of the exceptions afforded by the statute applied to her case.

New Jersey enjoys a fairly well-developed body of case law upholding exculpatory releases of liability. In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, the Appellate Division upheld an exculpatory agreement signed by a plaintiff before participating in a spinning class. 408 N.J. Super 435, 975 A.2d 494 (App. Div. 2009). In Stelluti, the Appellate Division held that although the exculpatory agreement in issue was a contracts of adhesion, it was not procedurally unconscionable, and would operate to exempt the defendant Health Club from plaintiff’s negligence claim. On November 4, 2009, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification to hear the plaintiff’s appeal. 200 N.J. 502, 983 A.2d 1110 (2009).