Tuesday, 31 May 2011 11:40

Horses & the Law - “EQUINE LAWSUITS – ALIVE & WELL”

Written by  Ken Sandoe, Attorney at Law
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Disclaimer – This article is intended as general discussion and information on the topic covered, and is not to be construed as rendering legal advice. If legal advice is needed, you should contact an attorney. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in any manner without prior written permission of the author.

At least in Pennsylvania. Two recent horse injury lawsuits in Pennsylvania have produced verdicts for the injured parties, one in the amount of $3 million, and one in the amount of $2.36 million. It must be remembered that Pennsylvania passed an Equine Immunity Act, effective February 21, 2006, which was designed to protect horse owners in cases of ordinary negligence where equine participants are injured. I will comment on the effect of the act, if any, in regard to these cases.

The first case is Kennedy v. Brock, C.P. Chester County, 07-10895, where a 27-year-old woman was awarded $3 million for injuries to her ankle and left upper extremity where the horse she was riding rolled over on its side, pinning the rider underneath the horse. According to the facts of the case, Kennedy worked part-time at Wyndsor Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Kennedy wanted to become a trainer, and when she wasn’t working, she would ride other horses on the farm in order to gain experience in riding, training and exercising horses.

Although the jury recently returned a verdict, the incident occurred on August 27, 2004, when Brock, the Defendant, an employee of Wyndsor Farm, was riding a horse for training and wanted to take a break. Kennedy agreed to ride the horse while Brock took a break. Kennedy rode the horse in an enclosed ring and began pulling on the reins in an attempt to get the horse to obey her commands. In the process of pulling on the reins, the horse rolled over on top of Kennedy. As a result of the accident, Kennedy suffered a broken right ankle, and decreased function of her left arm and shoulder. The Plaintiff also suffers from panic attacks.

Kennedy filed suit against Wyndsor Farm and Brock, alleging negligence in allowing an inexperienced rider to ride a young untrained horse. The Plaintiff called as an expert witness an animal behaviorist, who concluded that putting an inexperienced rider on a three-year-old horse in the early stages of training was negligent. The animal behaviorist concluded, “The trainer knew or should have known that Janet Kennedy did not have the skill necessary to handle a horse in such early stages of training.”

The Plaintiff also called as an expert witness a horse trainer, who examined the horse and diagnosed the horse with “head shaker syndrome,” a sensitivity which causes horses to bob their heads. The trainer also concluded that it was not unusual for young horses to lie down and roll over while under saddle. The facts also revealed that on the day of the accident, the horse appeared “upset, shaky,” was “throwing its head” and “bucking.” This behavior was additional evidence that an inexperienced rider should not have mounted the horse.

What is interesting about this case is that Kennedy, prior to riding the horse in question and as part of her employment, signed a release and waiver with Wyndsor Farm. The court opinion does not discuss the release and waiver, and it is curious that the defense did not raise the release and waiver as an absolute defense in this case. Since the cause of action arose in 2004, Pennsylvania’s Equine Immunity Statute was not applicable since the law did not become effective until 2006.

The evidence at trial listed lost future wages at $500,000 and past medical expenses at $45,000. The Defendant offered to settle the case before trial for the amount of $25,000. Obviously, the jury felt the injuries were severe and a large verdict was rendered.

This case presents the factual scenario of an inexperienced rider and a relatively young untrained horse. Many of the equine limited liability statutes provide for liability where an inexperienced driver or rider is paired with a high-strung, hard-to-handle horse. The moral of this case is to be certain that when you let an inexperienced person drive or ride your horse, be certain that the horse is well-broke. If not, you should go along when driving/riding and fully explain to a novice driver/rider that the horse would simply be too much to handle for an inexperienced driver/rider.
The second case to be reviewed is Williams v. Chamounix Equestrian Center, C.P. Philadelphia, No. 080604466. In this case, a Philadelphia jury awarded $2.36 million to a boy kicked in the face by a horse at a program known for helping inner-city youth in learning about horses.

The Plaintiff, Pharaoh Williams, and his mother, brought suit for injuries, including a broken jaw that Plaintiff suffered after being kicked in the face while loading a horse on a trailer. Williams, age 11 at the time of the incident, was asked to help an employee load a horse onto a trailer. The horse would not walk on the trailer, and the Plaintiff, Williams, hit the horse on the hind quarters with a stick and the horse responded by kicking Williams in the face. Williams testified that the employee told him to hit the horse. The employee testified that she told Williams not to hit the horse.
Williams’ attorneys argued it didn’t matter which version of the facts was to be believed, an 11-year-old should not be involved in loading a troublesome horse. Plaintiffs’ equine expert told the jury that, in her opinion, an 11-year-old should not have been involved in loading a horse. The Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the employee had no plan to load this two-year-old horse, and had the Plaintiff received detailed instructions on how to load a difficult horse, the accident would not have happened.

When Williams was kicked in the face, his jaw was broken, and he was knocked unconscious. He spent 11 days in the hospital and needed surgery on his mouth, including the insertion of 25 screws. Williams also had memory loss, concentration problems and suffers from migraine headaches. The jury found that the Defendant was 90% at fault for the accident. The jury also found that Williams was 10% at fault. The jury awarded $2.5 million in damages and $117,000 in medical bills. The jury award of over $2.6 million was reduced to $2.36 million as a result of the Plaintiff’s 10% negligence. It is interesting to note that the Plaintiff would have settled for $1.5 million, but the Defendant’s highest offer was $150,000.

Further, this case arose after Pennsylvania passed its Equine Immunity law and no mention is made in the court’s decision of the law being raised as a defense. The most probable reason is because the Plaintiff was a minor, age 11, and is not covered under the new law. However, his mother, who was awarded $117,000 in medical expenses, would be covered. So why wasn’t she excluded? The other requirement of the Pennsylvania law, as many other equine liability laws, is that in order to take advantage of the Act’s immunity, the owner must conspicuously post, on the premises, a sign at least three feet by two feet in two or more locations, which states: “You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania law.” It is possible the property was not posted, thereby now allowing the defense set forth in the law to be raised.

The point to take with you from this case is that when dealing with a minor, you must be super-cautious. The law goes to extraordinary measure to protect minors, and rarely will a minor be found to be at fault. Here, even though the minor hit the horse with a stick from a location close to the horse’s hind quarters, he was only found to be 10% at fault.
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.

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