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Horse-riding outfitter worries ruling will ruin him

Court struck down parental release forms

The Utah Supreme Court may have put Blair Peart out of business.

As Peart prepares for the upcoming busy season at Navajo Trails, a horse riding outfitter near Cedar City, he worries about the effects of a recent decision by the state's highest court.

And he thinks others should be worried, too, from ski resorts to school districts to churches.

The court's October ruling struck down parent-signed release forms as protection against organizations that provide activities to children, making the organizations liable for all accident-related fees arising from negligence on the group's part.

"I'm just a little guy, but it affects a lot of people in the state of Utah," Peart said. "It sure affects our business, big time, not being able to have these release forms as a buffer.

"They make us feel like you have to put the kids in a glass bubble and not expose them to anything because you just can't take the risk anymore."

The parents of an 11-year-old girl who was severely injured during a horseback ride through the trails of Duck Creek, Utah, sued Navajo Trails for some $10,000 in medical damages. Although the child's mother signed a release form before the ride, she believes Peart's company should be held responsible for the accident, which shattered the bones in the girl's face.

The form read, in part, "Riding and handling horses can be DANGEROUS . . . . By signing this form, you agree to ASSUME THE RISK of any injury, death, or loss, or damage which you or your child . . . may suffer."

The court rejected the release, saying parents cannot sign away their minor child's rights. The justices also voided an indemnity clause within the form that transferred financial responsibility for any accident from Navajo Trails and onto the girl's parents.

Peart fears the ruling will amount to skyrocketing insurance premiums. In fact, he is considering selling the 10-year-old business to avoid the additional costs.

"We don't know if we even want to be in business anymore because of the liability we're facing," he said.

Although his business has had more than 12,000 riders without incident, Peart said it only took the July 1997 mishap to jeopardize the entire industry. His insurance rates doubled the year after the accident, and he expects them to climb even higher when he renews the policy this June.

"All it takes is one case like this that just blows it out and upturns the whole business," Peart said. "I think it will affect everybody in this kind of business across the board."

Peart has appealed to similar operations statewide to effect a change in Utah law. He has also approached lawmakers for assistance.

Rep. John Swallow, R-Sandy, has agreed to look at the issue this year and see what, if anything, can or should be done.

The investigation will help "decide whether it makes sense to look at the policy established by the Utah Supreme Court, or whether we should move forward or not to change the common law," Swallow said.

One thing that must be decided is whether to allow organizations to pass the increased insurance costs onto all of their customers, through fees and the like, or to allow release forms to stand, therefore requiring the person participating in that activity to bear any medical costs alone.

Depending on what is decided, Swallow may raise the issue during the 2003 legislative session.

Peart's attorney, James Jensen, said the issue must be addressed by state lawmakers. It cannot be resolved any other way, he said.

"In my opinion, it's not possible to write a waiver or release that would provide any satisfaction when minors are involved," Jensen said. "The Legislature's going to have to deal with it."

The negligence case against Peart and Navajo Trails is headed toward trial in 6th District Court. It has not yet gone to trial, as the waiver issue had to be settled first. If Peart is found negligent, his insurance company will have to cover the child's medical expenses.