Anyone who has been around small children knows how impulsive, curious and fearless they can be. A small child does not understand concepts such as trespassing, and they often can’t read “no trespassing” signs. If a child sees something interesting on your property, they’re likely to walk right in and play with it, totally unaware of the potential dangers it presents.
Unfortunately for property owners, including horse owners, the law is designed to put the responsibility on you if a child is injured on your property – unless you take specific steps to prevent it.
Can my horse be a legal liability?
The legislatures of most states understand the tendency of children to trespass, and took it into account by creating attractive nuisance laws. An attractive nuisance is something that is likely to entice a child to trespass onto someone else’s land, and that could lead to injury to the child.
If you have an attractive nuisance on your property, and it’s likely that children will be tempted by it, you have a legal responsibility to protect those children. Failing to do so can make you liable for their injuries, even though they were trespassing on your property.
Children love horses, and are likely to approach them. Horses, as you probably know, are often friendly and will usually accept pats and snacks from strangers. But even the best-tempered horses are likely to bite or kick if they are made to feel threatened or nervous. This means that your horse could land you a personal injury lawsuit if it injures a well-meaning child who startled it.
What can I do to help prevent this outcome?
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce the probability that your horse will bring you legal liability.
Several years ago, in Salem, Ohio, a girl was kicked in the face by a horse while trespassing in a horse paddock, and suffered injuries. The court held that the owner of the horse was not liable for the girl’s injuries, because they had taken sufficient steps to ensure that the girl knew of the danger the horses presented. They had surrounded the paddock with an electric fence, and they had warned the girl several times of the possibility of injury from the horses.
Ohio courts are much more likely to hold in favor of the horse owner in these cases when the horse owner can show that they took all reasonable steps to make the horses as safe as possible for children. In doing so, the horse owners are expected to anticipate the types of measures that would effectively keep children from approaching the horses.
For example, the court will likely see “no trespassing” signs as completely ineffective, since children often can’t read them, or don’t appreciate their dangerous implications. Instead, things like sturdy fences, lights, alarms, verbal warnings to the children and talks with their parents are much more likely to prove that you did everything in your power to keep the children away from your horses. Following local ordinances on keeping horses is also essential in order to protect yourself from liability.
Every court is different, and there’s no guarantee that it will hold one way or the other. But by exercising good judgment, you can help to keep both your horses and the neighborhood kids safe from harm – and yourself safe from legal liability.