With the kind permission of EquestrianProfessional.com and Julie I. Fershtman, Attorney at Law, we are reprinting this article that is currently featured at the EquestrianProfessional.com website. Firstly though, a note from Elizabeth McMillan, CEO at www.equestrianprofessional.com “As a rider I compete in jumping sports. Because of this, wearing a helmet seems natural and I feel “naked” with out one. Over the years wearing a helmet prevented several what surely “could have been” serious injuries and I have seen many other riders saved quite literally by their helmets. Sadly, for many equestrian sports, the helmet has not been embraced as standard safety equipment. We at Equestrian Professional applaud the riders4helmets campaign and hope that their efforts encourage many more rides to – strap one on!”
Dear Ms. Fershtman:
What laws exist involving safety helmets?
– D.H. (North Carolina)
This article discusses equestrian helmet laws and addresses legislation involving helmets as well as some recent court cases. The article does not address association or competition rules that involve helmets.
Legislation Involving Helmets
Few laws exist nationwide mandating the use of equestrian safety helmets. New York has a helmet statute. In Florida, some local governments have enacted helmet ordinances. A small number of city governments in California and Washington have helmet ordinances.
The New York Law
New York’s helmet law took effect about 8 years ago. It requires riders under age 14 to wear approved helmets when riding a horse on highways and/or private roads. New York’s law also requires those who hire, rent out horses for riding, or provide training in the riding of horses for consideration to provide helmets at no extra charge to “beginning riders” of any age and riders less than 14 years of age. The law also requires “horse providers” to offer ASTM/SEI standard equestrian helmets to all riders along with “appropriate helmet safety information.”
In Florida, municipalities that have enacted helmet ordinances include Wellington, Plantation, Davie, and Parkland. All provide, in various ways, that minors must wear ASTM-standard equestrian helmets when riding in public areas. The Florida ordinances, except for the one in Parkland, Florida, apply to riders under 16. Parkland’s ordinance applies to riders under age 18.
Bainbridge Island, Washington passed a helmet law. It states that people who ride a horse in or on a public area shall wear a helmet unless the rider has an appropriate note from a Washington-licensed doctor excusing the use of a helmet.
Norco, California passed a helmet law in 2008. It states that those under age 18 who ride horses in public areas must wear properly fitted and secured helmets that are ASTM-standard (or any other nationally recognized helmet standard). The helmet must be worn regardless of whether the rider is controlling the horse.
In recent years, two people who wore no helmet have sued their employer or trainer claiming that he or she should have provided a helmet or offered education about helmets.
In a New York case decided in 2006, a police officer sued her employer, the City of New York, after being thrown from a horse during a training practice. She wore no safety helmet at the time and sustained a head injury. Her lawsuit claimed that the city’s failure to provide a properly fitting helmet was a substantial cause of her injuries. While the lawsuit progressed, she hired an expert witness who admitted within her opinion that even if she had worn a helmet, this might not necessarily have protected her head from a hard impact. Later, the court dismissed her lawsuit and the court of appeals agreed, finding that city’s refusal to provide or warn of helmets might not have been a sufficient cause of the accident.
In a California case decided in 2003, the plaintiff (the one who brought the lawsuit) was competing in a championship-level horse show class when her horse stumbled and threw her. She sustained head injuries and sued her former riding instructor. Her lawsuit claimed that he negligently advised her not to wear a safety helmet while competing in shows. The trial court threw out the lawsuit and the Court of Appeals agreed. In ruling that the case should be dismissed, the appellate court stated:
The undisputed evidence reveals riders in western competition, at the time of [the plaintiff's] accident, did not customarily wear helmets while competing. Within the world of western competition, riding apparel is designed to simulate cowboy regalia. Hence, the ubiquitous cowboy hat, not a safety helmet, completes the ensemble.
During the western competition at which [the plaintiff] fell, neither she nor her fellow riders sported protective headgear. Both of [the plaintiff's] parents agreed it was not common practice for western riders to don protective headgear.
* * *
Given the conflicting advice on apparel provided by the [now U.S. Equestrian Federation's] rules and the widespread practice of eschewing protective headgear during western competition, we cannot find [the defendant horse trainer] owed [the plaintiff] a duty, as her trainer, to go against the prevailing custom and advise her to wear protective headgear.
The fact that these two cases were dismissed does not necessarily mean that helmet-related lawsuits are all destined for failure. Whether any case succeeds always depends on the facts, law, and circumstances.
This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable attorney.
About the Author
Julie Fershtman, a lawyer for nearly 23 years, is one of the nation’s most experienced Equine Law practitioners, has tried equine cases before juries in four states, has drafted hundreds of contracts, and is a Fellow of the American College of Equine Attorneys. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net and www.equinelaw.info.
Julie Fershtman’s books, MORE Equine Law & Horse Sense and Equine Law & Horse Sense, can help people avoid disputes. Order both for $42.90, first-class shipping included. To order, call Horses & The Law Publishing at 866-5-EQUINE. Or, send check or money order to Horses & The Law Publishing, P.O. Box 250696, Franklin, MI 48025-0696.
Attention Lawyers and Paralegals: Julie’s new book on Litigating Animal Law Disputes was just released April 2009. Horses & The Law Publishing sells the book for a large discount off the regular $130 cover price. Contact Ms. Fershtman directly for information.