University of Vermont AAHS

Snider v. Fort Madison Rodeo Corporation

Iowa Court of Appeals
2002 WL 570890
February 20, 2002

Summary of Opinion

Plaintiff Snider was injured while she was crossing a street during a break in a parade she was observing.  A pony being ridden by small children spooked and injured her.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant parade sponsor on the ground that the domesticated animal event immunity statute precludes recovery.

In this opinion, the Court of Appeals agrees with that decision.  The parade was a domesticated animal event and none of the exceptions to the statute—intentional or reckless conduct, faulty device, spectator injury—applies here.

Text of Opinion

Elisabeth and Merle Snider appeal following the entry of a ruling granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment and dismissing their negligence claim against the sponsor of a parade and owner of a pony for injuries sustained when Elisabeth was struck by the pony during the parade. We affirm.

Background Facts and Proceedings.

Elisabeth Snider was attempting to cross the street, carrying a lawn chair, during the course of a parade when a pony, one of an organized group of horses advancing on the street, bolted with its two riders, eight-year-old Kayla and four-year-old Jesse Black, and knocked her over. Kayla and Jesse's mother, Lisa Black owned the pony. Based on the injuries sustained in the accident, Snider and her husband sued Lisa Black and the Fort Madison Rodeo Corporation d/b/a Tri-State Rodeo, the sponsor of the parade. The Sniders claimed, among other things, the defendants were negligent in allowing the children to ride the pony without a lead rope held by an adult.

The district court subsequently granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment in which they claimed Iowa Code chapter 673 (1999) precluded their liability in this suit. The court first concluded the legislature intended the phrase "domesticated animal event" to be sufficiently broad to encompass the parade and the alleged "break" in the parade. Iowa Code § 673.1(5). The court further determined that none of the statutory exceptions provided by the chapter applied. In particular, the court concluded as a matter of law that: (1) the defendants' conduct was not reckless as contemplated by section 673.2(1); (2) the lack of a lead rope did not constitute the use of "faulty or defective equipment" pursuant to section 673.2(2); and (3) the "break" in the parade was a part of the domesticated animal activity and not a "place where a reasonable person who is alert to inherent risks of domesticated animal activities would not expect a domesticated animal activity to occur" under section 673.2(5) The Sniders appeal from this ruling.

Scope of Review.

Summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Iowa R. Civ. P. 237(c). The facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Bennett v. MC No. 619, Inc., 586 N.W.2d 512, 516 (Iowa 1998). Whether the defendants owed the plaintiffs a duty of care is a threshold question of law for the court to decide on a motion for summary judgment. Sankey v. Richenberger, 456 N.W.2d 206, 207 (Iowa 1990). We review a summary judgment ruling for correction of errors of law. Shriver v. City of Okoboji, 567 N.W.2d 397, 400 (Iowa 1997).

Application of Chapter 673.

Iowa Code section 673.2 provides generally that a person is not liable for damages or injuries suffered by a spectator resulting from the inherent risks of a domesticated animal activity. A "domestic animal activity" may include the riding or driving of a domesticated animal or participation in a domesticated animal event. Iowa Code § 673.1(3)(a), (e). A "domesticated animal event" means generally "an event in which a domesticated animal activity occurs." Iowa Code § 673.1(5). We agree with the district court that the injuries sustained here were unquestionably the result of domesticated animal activity, that is, resulted from the riding of a pony. We also believe the district court correctly concluded the parade itself was a domesticated animal event in that it was an event "in which a domesticated animal activity occurs." Chapter 673, however, also provides for five exceptions to the general rule precluding liability for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of a domesticated animal activity. The district court rejected the Sniders' contentions that three of those exceptions applied to the facts of this case. On appeal, the Sniders contend the court erred in concluding no genuine issue of material fact existed as to the application of these three exceptions.

The Exceptions.

Iowa Code section 673.2(1). The protection provided by chapter 673 does not apply if the injury is caused by an act committed recklessly. Iowa Code § 673.2(1). The district court concluded that simply omitting a lead rope did not transgress so far beyond negligence as to constitute reckless behavior. It also found no evidence the injuries were the result of an affirmative act of willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others. The Sniders now contend the district court erroneously applied a heightened standard of recklessness, which improperly required them to prove the defendants acted in a "willful and wanton" manner.

Our supreme court recently applied the recklessness standard as contained in the Restatement (Second) of Torts section 500 (1965). See Leonard v. Behrens, 601 N.W.2d 76, 80 (Iowa 1999). That provision states:

  The actor's conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500, at 587. In Morris v. Leaf, 534 N.W.2d 388 (Iowa 1995), the court held that in order to prove recklessness as the basis for a duty, a plaintiff must show that the actor had intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known risk or a risk so obvious that the actor must be taken to have been aware of it and so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow. Id. at 391. In addition the danger must be so obvious from the facts that the actor knows or should reasonably foresee that harm will probably--that is, more likely than not--flow from the act. Bell v. Community Ambulance Service Agency for Northern Des Moines County, 579 N.W.2d 330, 335 (Iowa 1998).

We agree with the district court that the Sniders failed to generate a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendants' conduct was reckless, regardless of what exposition of the recklessness standard the court applied. The Sniders' expert, a former equestrian science instructor, did attest in his supporting affidavit, that the pony would not have run away if a lead rope had been properly used. However, he did not attest to the converse, that is, without a lead it was highly probably the pony would bolt and cause harm. Without such evidence, the Sniders' proof fails on the essential element that harm will more likely than not flow from the defendants' act of failing to use a lead rope. See Bell, 579 N.W.2d at 330. Moreover, Lisa Black testified in a deposition that a lead would not have stopped the startled pony, as she would not have been able to hold on to a lead with such a scared pony and the lead might actually have made the accident worse. Regardless of whether a lead rope would have controlled the horse, the issue is really whether Lisa intentionally failed to use a lead, knowing that she was creating an obvious risk of physical harm, and that risk was substantially greater than negligent conduct. The district court found and we agree she did not. The record does not support a finding that the risk of failing to use a lead rope was so great as to make it "highly probable" that harm would follow.

Thus, while there may be a dispute of facts, we believe this is only a dispute as to whether the conduct was reasonable, or constituted negligence. There is not a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the conduct was reckless. The Sniders' allegations and evidence clearly extend no further than simple negligence and are not of a degree consistent with a finding of recklessness. There is simply no evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude harm was "more likely than not" to follow from the act of allowing Kayla and Jesse to ride the pony without a lead rope. See Bell, 579 N.W.2d at 335. The court therefore correctly determined section 673.2(1) did not act to abrogate the general rule precluding liability in this case. We affirm the grant of summary judgment on this issue.

Iowa Code section 673.2(2). A person is not liable for damages where an injury is caused by the use of equipment that the defendant knew or reasonably should have known was faulty or defective. Iowa Code § 673.2(2). The Sniders argued there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the equipment was faulty or defective because of a lack of a lead rope. In analyzing this contention, the district court determined "faulty or defective" can only be understood to mean some flaw in, or damage to, the materials leading to a breakage or failure to function. We agree and therefore affirm on this issue as well. We, like the district court, decline to apply a broader definition to the statutory term than the clear language of the statute warrants.

The Sniders would have this court read the phrase "faulty or defective" as used in section 673.2(2) in a context consistent with its use in specialized products liability cases. See e.g. Sandry v. John Deere Co., 452 N.W.2d 616 (Iowa Ct.App.1989) (holding plaintiff presented a jury question as to whether a tractor was in a "defective condition unreasonably dangerous" when it lacked a guard between a radiator and a fan). We believe we must read section 673.2(2) according to its own context and usage in this particular statute. It is generally presumed that statutory words are used in their ordinary and usual sense with the meaning commonly attributed to them. Sorg v. Iowa Dep't of Revenue, 269 N.W.2d 129, 132 (Iowa 1978). Similarly, when a statute does not define a term used, it will be construed according to its accepted usage. State ex rel. Turner v. Drake, 242 N.W.2d 707, 709 (Iowa 1976).

The provision does not leave itself open to judgment calls in hindsight as to whether the actor could have used some additional equipment. The question is appropriately limited to asking whether the equipment in use at the time of the accident was flawed or damaged in some way. Here, there is no evidence the equipment actually used was in any way broken or failed to function. We therefore affirm the district court's conclusion that section 673.2(2) does not defeat the defendants' protection from liability.

Iowa Code section 673.2(5). The final exception to the general rule precluding liability provides the protection shall not apply to damages to a "spectator who is in a place where a reasonable person who is alert to the inherent risks of domesticated animal activities would not expect a domesticated animal activity to occur." Iowa Code § 673.2(5). The district court rejected the Sniders' contention that Elisabeth's perceived "break" in the parade would lead a reasonable person not to expect inherent risks of domesticated animal activities. The court noted the pony struck Elisabeth as she was crossing the street, and that as long as the parade was proceeding, a domesticated animal activity was occurring in the street. Consequently, the court determined a reasonable person crossing the street had to expect domesticated animal activity while there. In other words, the court held the break or gap did not function to carve out a safe area on the designated parade route where the defendants would not be afforded the statutory protection from liability.

We conclude the district court correctly granted summary judgment on this issue as well. The undisputed evidence shows that Elisabeth crossed the street carrying a lawn chair during a parade at a time when an organized group of horses was proceeding towards her. Further, there was no officially designated break in the parade; rather, she simply crossed during what she perceived as a gap between parade participants. In order to meet the clear design of chapter 673, the parade must be seen in its entirety and its participants given protection from liability for injuries sustained by any domesticated animal activity occurring during the course of the parade on the designated parade route. It thus follows that no reasonable juror could have concluded that while crossing the street mid-parade a reasonable person would not expect a domesticated animal activity to be occurring. The district court properly granted summary judgment on this issue.

Conclusion.

We affirm the district court's order granting summary judgment which dismissed the Sniders' claims. There was no genuine issue of material fact as to applicability of any of the three exceptions to the general rule under chapter 673 of limiting the liability of those participating in or sponsoring a domesticated animal activity.

AFFIRMED.


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