Rodeo and Assumption of Risk

I’ve been participating in rodeo for several years and one of the first few questions I always get is “Is it dangerous?” A seasoned competitor may want to immediately say, “No, of course not!” But from a liability perspective, the better answer is “maybe.” 

There are seven events traditionally put on at professional rodeos, including: bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping, team roping, and barrel racing. The first three events are known as the “roughstock” events, where riders attempt to ride the animal they have drawn for 8 seconds. Once/if the 8 seconds is reached, they are given a score out of 100 by two judges, who allocate a total of 50 points toward the rider and 50 points toward the animal’s performance. The other four events are known as the timed events, where competitors race the clock for a paycheck. 

Serious injuries at rodeos are thankfully rare, but they do happen. When an injury occurs, who is responsible—the rodeo or the rider? The following two cases show how a court decides whether a bronc rider “assumed the risk” by participating in the rodeo and is therefore barred from recovery. While both cases involve bronc riding, the standard applies across all events and to all competitors.

The first case involved a high school rodeo competitor, Burke, competing at a sanctioned high school event in Nebraska in 2004. Burke v. McKay, 679 N.W.2d 418 (Neb. 2004). The bronc he rode had already flipped onto its back in an earlier rodeo in O’Neill, Nebraska. Burke and his father were at the O’Neill event and saw the horse flip over. The horse was used again later without flipping over.  However, when Burke rode the horse at a rodeo in Madison, Nebraska, the horse flipped and injuring Burke. Burke and his parents signed the release required by the high school rodeo association. Burke’s complaint against the stock contractor alleged that he knew or had reason to know of the animal’s dangerous behavior and should not have continued to use it. The stock contractor denied liability, claiming Burke had assumed the risk and signed a liability release.

The Nebraska court focused its discussion on the assumption of risk issue. The standard for assumption of risk is: (1) the person knew of and understood the specific danger, (2) the person voluntarily exposed himself/herself to the danger, and (3) the person's injury, death, or harm to property occurred as a result of his/her exposure to the danger. The court found that Burke and his father knew and understood the specific danger of the event and the horse Burke drew after witnessing the injury to the other contestant in O’Neill. Burke then willingly exposed himself to injury by riding the horse after he learned his draw in Madison. Finally, the voluntary exposure of riding the horse was the proximate cause of Burke’s injuries in this claim. The court reversed summary judgment for Burke and remanded to the district court for review.

The other case came from Louisiana, concerning a bronc rider, Rosenberger, who injured his knee at a fair rodeo in 1971. Rosenberger v. Central Louisiana Dist. Livestock Show, Inc., 312 So.2d 300 (La. 1975). Many rodeos have a “performance”, where 10-12 competitors are picked to compete in each event for the main spectator show, and a “slack,” which is a second, less formal showing after the main event. Rosenberger rode in the slack and injured his knee when the horse he was on ducked through a partially open gate. Rosenberger sued for damages, claiming his injury was caused by the negligence of the rodeo promoter leaving the gate open during competition. The promotor argued Rosenberger assumed the risk by participating in the event. The Louisiana court found the rodeo promoter liable for Rosenberger’s injury. In applying the assumption of risk standard, the court recognized Rosenberger and every other reasonable cowboy in his position would have delayed his ride if he had known the gate was open. Rosenberger did not know the gate was open, instead, his only voluntary act was attempting to ride his horse in conditions he believed were normal Rosenberger was unaware of the open gate until it was too late. The court ruled that those hosting athletics or amusement events must maintain the premises in a reasonably safe and condition, and provide services and equipment necessary to do so. The gate was not securely shut, which the court reasoned greatly increased the danger of the event and altered the normal expectations and conditions for a bronc ride, creating an instance where damages for negligence should be awarded. The court affirmed the damages granted by the trial court to the rider.

To conclude, the legal standard involving assumption of risk involves the three factors discussed in the Burkecase. Courts will look subjectively at the actions taken by both parties and the circumstances involved in the accident to determine liability and damages. In weighing whether a person knew the specific danger, a court will likely consider how often the competitor enters rodeos, their experience in the event they were injured in, whether the competitor owned or rode the horse or bulls used previously, and if the rodeo producer or stock contractor was negligent in advertising the event or its animals. Regarding whether an act was voluntary, the court will likely look at whether the competitor paid their fees, signed a waiver, and was a frequent competitor in the event. Courts may also look for coercion or fraud, but these elements are unlikely in a sport such as rodeo, where competitors usually own their horses or are familiar with the roughstock. Finally, to determine if the damage was caused by an assumption of risk or negligence, the court will likely hear testimony or consult livestock industry and rodeo association standards/rulebooks to determine if the subject incident was a normal occurrence for a rodeo or if there were intentional or negligent factors causing harm. There will be a following blog coming shortly applying the legal standards discussed here to rodeo competitors and spectators, giving a few tips for safety and how to avoid harm and liability in this sport.