University of Vermont AAHS

Barton v. Irish

Minnesota Court of Appeals
UNPUBLISHED, 2002 WL 51056920
September 17, 2002

Summary of Opinion

Plaintiff Barton was injured when the horse she was riding, owned by defendant Irish, threw her.  She sued Irish and one Passe, who had volunteered in saddling the horse on that occasion, on the theory that the saddle caused the injury because it was defective in that sharp metal objects protruded from under the saddle that irritated the horse.  The trial court granted summary judgment for both defendants. 

In this opinion, the Court of Appeals says that it agrees with the grant of summary judgment in favor of the volunteer, Passe.  Passe owed no duty to Irish or to the plaintiff Barton regarding saddling the horse so could not have been held liable.  As to Irish, however, there was a duty—it was his horse and saddle—and there was enough evidence that the saddle was defective and may have caused the injury to require a trial to resolve those issues.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Irish and sent the case back to the trial court.

Text of Opinion

Appellant Jill E. Barton initiated a personal injury action against respondents Robert Irish and Scott Passe. While on a trail ride on Irish's property on May 1, 1994, appellant was thrown from a horse and sustained serious injuries. Irish owned the horse appellant was riding and Passe, a family friend of Irish, had saddled the horse. Barton alleged that Irish and Passe were negligent because the saddle used on the horse that day was defective and contained sharp metal pieces that dug into the horse's back, causing it to throw her.

The district court granted summary judgment, ruling that there was no proof that the defective saddle was the proximate cause of Barton's injuries. Because we conclude that Passe owed Barton no legal duty as a matter of law, we affirm the grant of summary judgment to him. Because we conclude that, at least for purposes of summary judgment, Barton offered sufficient evidence to establish a cause of action for negligence against Irish, we reverse the grant of summary judgment to Irish and remand for trial.

DECISION

On appeal from summary judgment, an appellate court's duty is to determine whether any genuine issues of material fact exist and whether the district court erred in its application of the law. Cummings v. Koehnen, 568 N.W.2d 418, 420 (Minn.1997). "A reviewing court must view evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted." Vetter v. Sec. Continental Ins. Co., 567 N.W.2d 516, 520 (Minn.1997) (citation omitted). This court gives de novo review to a district court's determination of a purely legal question. Frost-Benco Elec. Assoc. v. Minn. Pub. Utils. Comm'n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn.1984). If the reviewing court finds that material issues of fact remain, however, the case is remanded to the district court without a decision on any legal issues. Caledonia Cmty. Hosp. v. Liebenberg Smiley Glotter & Assocs., 308 Minn. 255, 258-59, 248 N.W.2d 279, 281 (1976).

The district court granted summary judgment on the basis of lack of proof of causation.

  A defendant in a negligence action is entitled to summary judgment when the record reflects a complete lack of proof on any of the four elements necessary for recovery: (1) the existence of a duty of care, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) an injury, and (4) the breach of that duty being the proximate cause of the injury.

Louis v. Louis, 636 N.W.2d 314, 318 (Minn.2001). To be the proximate cause of an injury, a party's negligent act must be

  one which the party ought, in the exercise of ordinary care, to have anticipated was likely to result in injury to others, * * * though he could not have anticipated the particular injury which did happen.

Lubbers v. Anderson, 539 N.W.2d 398, 401 (Minn.1995) (quotations omitted). The defendant's conduct must also be a "substantial factor in bringing about the injury." Id. at 401-02 (quotation omitted). Proximate cause is typically a fact question to be determined by the trier of fact. Wartnick v. Moss & Barnett, 490 N.W.2d 108, 115 (Minn.1992).

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Barton, we conclude that she provided sufficient evidence to withstand a motion for summary judgment in favor of Irish. The record shows that Barton and her sister, Jennifer Van Brunt, were solely involved in breaking the horse that injured Barton and that the two had extensive experience with training and breaking horses. Although horses are generally unpredictable animals, this horse may not have been unpredictable to them, based on their experience with horses and their training with this particular horse. They both testified that the horse had never bucked before the date of Barton's injury.

Barton, Van Brunt, and Albert Garner, their father, who was present during part of the trail ride and who also had extensive experience with horses, all testified in their depositions about the metal prongs protruding from the underside of the saddle and other indications of saddle defects that appeared on the horse's back. Barton stated that she had seen photos of the saddle taken after the ride that revealed "several pieces of metal were sticking from the bottom of the saddle" that would have "jabbed" the horse as he began to trot or run and that if she had known the condition of the saddle, she "would not have gotten back on that horse until that saddle had been changed."

Garner, who had worked all his life with horses, including as a race horse trainer, stated that the saddle was cheaply made, was "beyond its use" or "used up," and that he would not "have put it on a mule." Garner also stated that he resaddled the horse during the trail ride and that the horse had "marks on his withers" that indicated that "the saddle [was] digging in." He said that although the horse did not have fistulas or white marks that older horses have when they repeatedly wear an ill-fitting saddle, "he had marks that would eventually lead to that problem." Van Brunt stated that she did not see a defect in the saddle on the trail ride, but she did notice that the saddle "wasn't fitting correctly." Referring to the metal pieces that she had seen in photos of the saddle, Van Brunt stated, "You wouldn't think somebody would put something like that on an animal. I mean it would seem kind of unusual that somebody would use such equipment." She further indicated that the horse's bucking was likely caused either by an ill-fitting saddle or by the metal pieces protruding from the saddle.

According to Barton, none of the three was allowed to inspect the saddle until after their depositions because the saddle was in the possession of an insurance company. After seeing the saddle, Barton added that "pieces of sharp metal sticking out from underneath the center part of the saddle * * * in combination with the thin blankets, caused [the horse] to buck." She also stated that the metal pieces were concealed and that had she known of the existence of the metal pieces, she would not have ridden the horse or would have used a different saddle on him.

While evidence of causation must establish more than mere "speculation or conjecture" about the cause of an injury, we conclude that the standard has been met in this case. See Abbett v.. County of St. Louis, 474 N.W.2d 431, 434 (Minn.App.1991) (citation omitted). In light of the record evidence, the district court erred by concluding that Barton failed to support her claim that her injury was caused by a defective saddle, at least for purposes of surviving a summary judgment motion. We therefore reverse the grant of summary judgment to Irish. [FN1]

FN1. We also note that the district court allowed Irish to join in Passe's summary judgment motion, even though Irish's "motion" was made in a letter sent less than ten days before the time fixed for the summary judgment hearing. Both the form of the motion and its timing were improper under Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03 and Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 115.03.

As to Passe, however, we conclude that Barton failed to establish the element of duty necessary to a negligence claim as a matter of law and that summary judgment on the negligence claim against him was proper. See Howard v. Minn. Timberwolves Basketball Ltd. P'ship, 636 N.W.2d 551, 556 (Minn.App.2001) (summary judgment "mandatory" where plaintiff fails to establish essential element of claim); Yunker v. Honewell, Inc., 496 N.W.2d 419, 421 (Minn.App.1993) (question of whether legal duty exists generally a question of law), review denied (Minn. Apr. 20, 1993).

In order for a duty of care to exist, Passe had to have some special relationship with Irish, either as an employee, agent, or joint venturer. No record evidence establishes that Passe had any of these relationships with Irish that would establish a legal duty towards Barton. See Rehnberg v. Minn. Homes, Inc., 236 Minn. 230, 234-35, 52 N.W.2d 454, 456-57 (1952) (joint venture typically requires contribution of both parties towards common undertaking, sharing profits, and contract establishing relationship); Frank v. Winter, 528 N.W.2d 910, 914 (Minn.App.1995) (agency relationship established where person consents for another to act on his behalf and under his control), review denied (Minn. Apr. 27, 1995). To the contrary, the evidence shows only that Passe volunteered to help Irish's son saddle the horses for a trail ride. In his uncontradicted deposition testimony, Passe stated that the saddles used for the horses were lined up when he arrived for the group trail ride and that he merely offered to help saddle the horses. Irish did not control Passe's actions, and the two men did not communicate about preparing for the trail ride. In the absence of a legal duty, a negligence claim fails. See Hudson v. Snyder Body, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 149, 157 (Minn.1982). We therefore affirm the grant of summary judgment to Passe, but on a basis different from that relied upon by the district court.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.


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