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NJ Appellate Division Limits Release in Equine Liability Case

August 5, 2009

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Although known as the "Garden State," New Jersey is also home to many riding schools, stables and horse farms. It has the Meadowlands Racetrack, Monmouth Park Racetrack and Freehold Raceway just to name a few. Not surprisingly, New Jersey has a statute limiting the liability of the operators of equine activities. Many experienced operators supplement these statutory protections by requiring participants to sign detailed release and waiver forms to protect the operator from any claims for bodily injury.
Can a release provide protection beyond those provided by statute? In other words, may a release protect an operator from risks that are specifically beyond the scope of immunities provided by New Jersey's Equine Activities Liability Act? According to <i>Hubner v. Spring Valley Equestrian Center</i>, the answer is "no." In <i>Hubner</i>, plaintiff was injured when her horse tripped over training poles embedded in the the floor of defendant's barn. Two issues confronted the appellate court. First, did the statute protect the equine operator under these circumstances? Second, if not, did the release signed by plaintiff release the defendant from liability?
The court decided that the statute did not apply under the facts presented in <i>Hubner</i>. But, more importantly, the court invalidated the release as a violation of public policy. It reasoned that the legislature set forth the circumstances under which an equine operator would be entitled to immunity for claims arising out of equine activities. Thus, the enforcement of the release in a scenario where the operator is not entitled to statutory immunity would undermine "the balance of risks and costs" made by the legislature in the Equine Activities Liability Act.
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