By Julie I. Fershtman, Attorney at Law
The stable or instructor gives the customer a liability release to sign. Later, he sues the stable, and when the stable uses the signed release in its defense, the customer admits that he signed it. But he claims that it should not be enforced because he failed to read it before he signed it.
Is this argument valid? Nationwide, courts have considered these claims in equine-related cases, and some of the results might surprise you.
Signer Did Not Read the Release Before Signing
People sometimes challenge releases by claiming that they failed to read the documents before signing. That argument can fail in some states – unless the court is convinced that the stable may have defrauded the signer into not reading.
In a 1983 Georgia case involving a rented horse, the plaintiff signed the stable’s liability release but later became injured during the trail ride. The trial court dismissed the case based on the release, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that he never read the release before signing it. In doing so, the court stated: “One signing a written document without reading it, unless prevented from doing so by fraud or artifice (a fact not shown to be true in this case), is chargeable with knowledge of its contents.”
In a 1997 Indiana case, the plaintiff signed a stable’s release before taking part in a guided trail ride but was kicked by a horse during the ride. The trial court dismissed his case based on the release. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that he was rushed into signing it and did not read it. Examining the facts, however, the court found insufficient evidence of this and noted that the stable did not rush him into signing the release nor did the stable defraud him into signing it. Dismissal was affirmed.
Signer Allegedly Rushed Into Signing
People sometimes challenge releases with the argument that they were “rushed’ into signing. When those arguments are made, courts will evaluate the circumstances leading up to signing. Court rulings can be unpredictable. For example:
“Less than 15 seconds” to read was not enough. In a 1954 California case, the plaintiff signed the defendant riding academy’s release but later sustained paralyzing injuries during the ride. He claimed that he spent less than 15 seconds with the document before he signed it. The court refused to enforce the release, finding disputed facts as to whether the academy defrauded the plaintiff into signing the release, in part by failing to tell him that it was assigning a spirited horse.
“Two seconds” to read was enough. In a 2001 Federal Court case from North Carolina, the plaintiff claimed he spent only about “two seconds” glancing at the stable’s release before signing it. He later fell from a horse and sued. Still, the Court enforced the release and dismissed the lawsuit.
Please keep in mind that laws differ nationwide, and states differ in how (or if) they enforce releases of liability. Direct your questions to a knowledgeable attorney.
This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable insurance agent or attorney.
About the Author
Julie Fershtman, a lawyer for nearly 30 years, is one of the nation’s most experienced Equine Law practitioners. A Shareholder with Foster Swift Collins & Smith, PC, based in Michigan, she has successfully handled equine cases in 17 jurisdictions nationwide and tried equine cases in 4 states. She has drafted thousands of equine industry contracts and is a Fellow of the American College of Equine Attorneys. Her speaking engagements span 29 states. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net and www.equinelawblog.com.