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It has been awhile since I reviewed court cases interpreting equine statutes (See Article in Winter 2002-'03 issue of The Draft Horse Journal). Also, as an update, it should be noted that five States still have not passed an equine activity statute. These States are Alaska, California, Maryland, Nevada and New York.
The horse is gaining popularity and more carriage businesses and riding stables are popping up. With a rise in horse-related activity also comes additional risk as we all know, “things happen.” As can be predicted, this all creates more work for lawyers and an increase in lawsuits. A review of some recent decisions will follow.
In Markowitz v. Bainbridge Equestrian Center, Inc., (2007 WL 959906, Court of Appeals, Ohio) a seven-year-old boy attended summer camp for a week-long session. In order to enroll the boy in the program, the parents were required to sign an equine activity release. The release identified “inherent risks of equine activity” as “propensity of an equine to behave in ways that may result in injury” and “the unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to sounds, sudden movement, unfamiliar objects, persons or other animals.” The release further provided: “I freely assume all risks and hazards that may occur as a result of being an equine activity participant.”
The child in question, Gavin, was identified as a beginning rider and received two days training at the camp on how to post, put heels down, hold the reins, steer, stop and go, and how to dismount in an emergency.
On the third day of camp Gavin was to engage in a half-hour trail ride. The ride was to take place in a meadow next to the camp and was conducted by camp counselors. Gavin was teamed with a pony named Bradley. Bradley was brought to the camp on the previous day, was led around the grounds before the trail ride and had previously been ridden by a six-year-old girl.
During the trail ride Bradley was spooked by a clap of thunder and reared up. Gavin fell from the pony and the pony stepped on Gavin breaking several ribs and tearing the boy's liver. Gavin was life-flighted to a local hospital and has since recovered from his injuries.
Gavin’s parents filed a lawsuit against the equestrian center claiming that the center was negligent in matching an inexperienced rider with an inadequately tested horse and by providing a staff of inadequate individuals with lack of proper training.
The Ohio Court of Appeals reviewed the Ohio Equine Activity Statute and determined that the cause of Bradley’s behavior was the pony’s reaction to a sudden clap of thunder. This is the type of inherent risk of an equine activity that the statute was designed to protect. Under the facts of this case the Court concluded that “human activity” was not the proximate cause of Gavin’s injuries but rather the thunder, over which no man has any control.
It is unclear why the Court of Appeals reviewed the Ohio Equine Activity Statute in light of the release which was signed in this case. After reviewing the Ohio Equine Activity Statute and finding no liability, the Court then reviewed the release which the Plaintiffs claimed was non-binding.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the Trial Court and concluded that the Equine Activity Liability Release signed by Gavin’s parents complied with the statutory requirements and released the equestrian center from any liability “suffered or incurred while participating in any equine activity.” The release identifies the inherent risks of equine activity as set forth in the statute and provides: “I freely assume all risks and hazards that may occur as a result of being an equine activity participant." The Plaintiffs then argued that they were not thoroughly informed of the nature of horses and that the release was not adequately explained to them. The Court did not agree with this argument. The Court pointed out that the release states: “I have read this entire Equine Activity Liability Release. The contents and meaning are clearly understood by me.” As a result, the Court found the release to be valid and again held that there was no liability on behalf of the equestrian center.
This is a good case in terms of interpreting the Equine Activity Statute and upholding the release. Clearly an equine activity sponsor cannot be responsible for the reaction of a horse when a sudden clap of thunder causes the horse to rear or bolt.
In Terrill v. Stacy, (2006 WL 473799, Court of Appeals, Michigan) the Plaintiff was seriously injured when she was thrown from a horse that bolted after the bit broke. Plaintiff was riding a horse at Defendant’s ranch when, for some unknown reason, the horse bolted. As Plaintiff attempted to control the horse the bit broke and Plaintiff lost all control. Plaintiff fell from the horse and was seriously injured. However, prior to riding the horse, the Plaintiff executed a release and waiver of liability in accordance with the Michigan Equine Activity Liability Act.
Despite the release signed by Plaintiff and the protections afforded by the Michigan Equine Activity Liability Act, the Plaintiff filed suit for damages maintaining that the Defendant supplied a defective bit which was the cause of her injuries. Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants were negligent in failing to inspect the bit prior to the ride and/or failing to properly repair the bit. Defendants claimed that Plaintiff had no case because she signed a release and waiver prior to riding the horse.
Plaintiff countered the release argument by contending it was ambiguous and did not cover the nature of her injury since the case involved faulty tack.
The Michigan Equine Activity Statute does not insulate an equine activity sponsor from liability where the equine activity sponsor provides equipment or tack which is faulty and where the sponsor knew or should have known that the equipment was faulty. It is unclear whether the Defendants were aware of problems with the bit prior to the ride. The decision does not answer this question although the allegation is made by the Plaintiffs. However, for purposes of reviewing the issues involved in this case let us assume that the bit was broken prior to the Plaintiff mounting the horse. This fact would establish liability on behalf of the Defendant for providing faulty tack but for the release signed by the Plaintiff. The question becomes can a release insulate the Defendant beyond the provisions of an equine activity statute?
The release in question is interesting and the actual language is important to review. That portion of the release which is pertinent to this case is as follows:
“I do hereby … release and forever discharge (defendants) … from any and all claims and demands of every kind, nature and character which I may hereafter acquire or have accrued to me … for any and all property damages, losses, and injuries which may be suffered or sustained by me while I am present on the aforesaid land or participating in any activity originating from said property or any further events for which I may qualify. … I, the undersigned, understand that equine activities are risky by nature. It is mutually understood and agreed that this release constitutes a waiver of liability beyond the provisions of the Michigan Equine Activity Act.” (Emphasis added)
The interpretation of the language of a release is a question of law which must be made by a judge. If the release is unambiguous and the parties’ intentions are clear, then the ordinary meaning of the release will be followed. The Michigan Court of Appeals found that the language was clear and that the release was valid. What is interesting in this case is that the Michigan Court of Appeals allowed the release to trump the Michigan Equine Activity Statute and provide insulation to the Defendants. Without the release the Defendants could have been held liable for providing faulty tack. This is a good case to stand for the proposition that liability releases are greater protection than equine activity statutes and should be used in all cases.
The final case to be reviewed is Rutecki v. CSX Hotels, Inc., (2007 WL 192514, United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia). The Plaintiff, Heather Rutecki, made a reservation to stay at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She also made a reservation to go horseback riding at the Greenbrier and made arrangements to take a private ride with a groom at the Greenbrier. The groom, Mr. Diem, selected a horse for Plaintiff to ride who had recently completed a private ride earlier in the morning. Prior to the ride, the Plaintiff was asked to sign what Plaintiff called a “sign-in” sheet. What Plaintiff actually signed was a “Greenbrier Notice, Release and Indemnification.” The document that the Plaintiff signed exonerates Greenbrier from any liability and reads that the Plaintiff assumes all risk of liability in regard to the horse-related activity. The release also had a line for Plaintiff to indicate her riding ability which the Plaintiff failed to do. After signing the release, the Plaintiff went outside, mounted her horse and began to ride.
After beginning the ride, the groom who accompanied the Plaintiff, had trouble controlling his horse and was thrown. Apparently disturbed by this action, the Plaintiff’s horse turned quickly and bolted causing the Plaintiff to fall and severely injure her back.
As a result of the Plaintiff’s injuries, she filed a lawsuit against the Greenbrier.
It is interesting to note that the Plaintiff was a practicing attorney at all times material to this case. The Greenbrier raised the release as an affirmative defense to the lawsuit and the Plaintiff attempted to get around the release. The Plaintiff argued that she was told that the release was a “sign-in” sheet and that she only saw page 3 of the agreement.
The Court noted that page 3 of the agreement clearly identified it as a “Notice, Release and Indemnification” and that Plaintiff left certain aspects of the release unanswered in regard to her riding ability.
Greenbrier employees testified that the Notice, Release and Indemnification agreement was presented to the Plaintiff to sign and that she was aware, especially since she was a practicing attorney, of what the document represented.
The Court found that the release was valid and found no liability for any violation of the West Virginia Equine Activity Statute. The West Virginia Court of Appeals went on to echo the words of the Court in Hommel v. Benshoff, 682 N.Y.S. 2d 546, 549 (N.Y.Sup.Ct. 1998), “there is no dispute that a horse is a powerful and sometimes unpredictable animal …” For this reason, the West Virginia Legislature enacted the West Virginia Equestrian Equine Activities Responsibility Act with the purpose to prevent liability for risks that are nearly impossible to eliminate.
This is another good case for the importance of having a valid and binding release signed by an equine participant prior to the equine activity taking place. Thus, it is crucial if you have an equine activity business of any sort, to be certain to follow the Equine Activity Statute in your State, ie. posting, etc., and to have an attorney draft a thorough and binding release which will protect the horse owner from lawsuits.
Enough legal talk – it’s time to hitch horses.
Ken is a practicing attorney in Myerstown, PA, where a good bit of his practice involves negligence cases. Ken and his wife, Karen, own Sunny Hill Farm Belgians, and they have been exhibiting their six-horse hitch for the past few years at most major shows in the East.