University of Vermont AAHS

Azad v. Mill Creek Equestrian Center

California Court of Appeals
UNPUBLISHED, 2004 WL 2850009
December 13, 2004

Summary of Opinion

Plaintiff Azad was injured while taking a mounted riding lesson when another horse in the arena ran loose spooking her horse.  The trial court ruled that the release from liability she signed protected the Center from ordinary negligence, which this probably was.  The release did not cover gross negligence, but there was no proof of gross negligence here.  In this opinion, the Court of Appeals agrees with that decision.

Text of Opinion

 Appellant injured herself falling off a horse during a horseback riding lesson. In this appeal, she challenges the award of summary judgment entered in favor of the equestrian center. Reviewing the record de novo, we find Azad released all claims other than gross negligence and willful misconduct. She does not allege any willful misconduct. Because she provides no evidence of gross negligence, the trial court correctly entered summary judgment. We shall affirm.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

 The facts interpreted in the light most favorable to Azad indicate the following. On March 16, 2001, Nicole Azad, an inexperienced rider, had a private horseback riding lesson at Mill Creek Equestrian Center, Inc. (MCEC). Prior to her lesson, she signed a release of liability, which was part of a two page document. Each page of the release contained a heading identifying it as a release.

 During Azad's lesson, she rode a horse named Bruno and was instructed by Sandra Samel. Samel chose to hold the lesson in a ring known as the jumping ring even though it was not the ring commonly used for beginning lessons. At the same time as Azad's lesson, other riders were in the jumping ring including Courtney Leonard. Leonard rode a horse named Dan, who had been injured. Leonard fell off Dan, and Dan started running. In response to Dan, Bruno started running. Azad was unable to gain control over Bruno. Samel did not instruct Azad to immediately dismount and did not grab Bruno's reins. Bruno jumped the fence, which was not as high as the standard in the industry. Azad fell off Bruno and fractured her leg.

 Azad's expert, Jill Cooke, opined that the height of the railings in the jumping ring ranged from two to two and a half feet where industry standard was three and a half feet. Cooke also concluded that "separated schooling areas are recommended." According to Cooke, Samel should have chosen a different ring for Azad's lesson, one dedicated to inexperienced riders. Cooke also concluded that Samel should have instructed Azad to dismount Bruno and should have held Bruno's reigns. Cooke opined that "Ms. Samel's failure to act promptly and appropriately to protect her student thereby created new risk to [Ms. Azad], over and above those inherent in the sport."

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

 Azad filed a complaint for negligence against MCEC and alleged that MCEC committed both negligence and gross negligence. MCEC moved for summary judgment.

 The trial court granted MCEC's motion for summary judgment. The court found that Azad's express waiver was valid and that the assumption of risk doctrine applied. Azad appealed. The notice of appeal was filed after the order granting summary judgment but before judgment was entered. Construing the notice of appeal liberally, we deem this an appeal from the judgment which was subsequently entered. (Levy v. Skywalker Sound (2003) 108 Cal.App.4th 753, 761, fn 7.)

DISCUSSION

 Azad argues there are material issues of fact regarding whether the release was clear and whether it exempted the challenged conduct. She also argues MCEC increased the risk to Azad beyond that inherent in horseback riding.

 I. Express Assumption of Risk

 Prior to her horse back riding lesson, Azad signed the following release:

"I agree that in consideration for this stable allowing my participation in this activity, under the terms set forth herein and in the MILL CREEK RULES AND REGULATIONS of which I received a copy, read, and understand, I the rider and the parent or legal guardian thereof if a minor, and on behalf of my heirs, administrators, personal representative or assigns, do agree to hold harmless, release and discharge MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER, its owners, agents, employees, officers, directors, representatives, assigns, members, owner(s) of premises and trails, affiliated organizations, insurers, and others acting on its behalf (hereinafter collectively referred to as associates) of and from all claims, demands, causes of action and legal liability whether the same be known or unknown, anticipated or unanticipated, due to MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER'S and/or its associates ordinary negligence; and I do further agree that except in the event of MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER'S gross negligence and willful and wanton misconduct, I shall not bring any claims, demands, legal actions and causes of action against MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER and ITS ASSOCIATES as stated above in this clause, for any economic and non‑economic losses due to bodily injury, death, property damage sustained by me and/or my minor child and/or legal ward in relation to the premises and operations of MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER to include while riding, handling, or otherwise being near horses owned by or in the care, custody and control of MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER, whether on or off the premises of MILL CREEK EQUISTRIAN CENTER. I further understand that all riding engaged in at MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER is solely at my own risk and that MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER is not liable for any injury which may occur to me on its premises, whether bodily injury or otherwise. I further agree to release MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER, its agents and employees from any and all liability for any injuries I may sustain while riding and agree to indemnify and hold MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER harmless as to all claims, actions, damages, costs and expenses, including attorney's fees, arising therefrom. [∂] The aforesaid release and limitation of liability includes, without limitation, any obligations of MILL CREEK EQUESTRIAN CENTER with respect to consequential damage and negligent behavior of any of its employees...." (Emphasis added.)

 A. Validity of the Release

 Citing Conservatorship of Estate of Link (1984) 158 Cal.App.3d 138, 141-142 (Link ), Azad argues that the release is not enforceable because it is not readily identifiable as a release. In Link, the court found that a release should be distinguished from other paragraphs of the document; a release should be conspicuous; and a release must clearly convey that rights are being released. (Ibid.)

 The release satisfies the Link criteria. It contains the title "LIABILITY RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT." Each page of the two page document contains a heading which is printed in bold print and underlined "RIDING INSTRUCTION AGREEMENT AND LIABILITY RELEASE FORM." Above the signature line, in a paragraph titled "signer statement of awareness," there is an acknowledgment of understanding the liability release, which Azad signed. Unlike in Link, the release does not appear to be "calculated to conceal and not to warn the unwary." (Link, supra, 158 Cal.App.3d at p. 141.)

 Azad claims that it is not clear "what conduct is exempted from liability." She faults the release for "simultaneously purporting to encompass claims based upon [ordinary negligence] and excluding claims based upon [gross negligence]." Azad points out that, in Continental Ins. Co. v. American Protection Industries (1987) 197 Cal.App.3d 322, a case not involving a release, the court held "in light of the adoption of the doctrine of comparative negligence in California, any attempt to categorize gross negligence separately from ordinary negligence is unnecessary." (Id. at p. 330.) Continental Insurance Co., however, did not hold that the distinction between ordinary and gross negligence never is relevant or is inherently ambiguous. To the contrary, it recognized that the distinction remained viable where a statute proscribes gross negligence. (Id. at p. 329.) The express contractual provision distinguishing between ordinary and gross negligence is not inherently ambiguous.

 Thus, the release covers conduct other than gross negligence and intentional misconduct. [FN1] Azad does not allege intentional misconduct. In the next section, we consider whether Azad has provided any evidence of gross negligence.

FN1. MCEC argues that the "Release was specific enough to warn Appellant, and to convey that Respondents would not be held liable for any physical injury to Appellant." While the release discusses liability for "any injury" it expressly excludes "gross negligence and willful and wanton misconduct."

II. Implied Assumption of Risk

 By consenting to participate in a sport that includes risks, a person consents to assume the risks inherent in the sport. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 311.) A person does not consent to a breach of a duty by another that increases the risks inherent in the sport. (Ibid.) " '[A] purveyor of recreational activities owes a duty to a patron to not increase the risks inherent in the activity in which the patron has paid to engage....' " (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 1005 (Kahn ).)

 In Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 996, our high court considered the doctrine of assumption of the risk in the context of a lawsuit against a swimming instructor. The court held that a sports instructor breaches a duty of care only " 'if the instructor intentionally injures the student or engages in conduct that is reckless in the sense that it is 'totally outside the range of the ordinary activity.' " (Ibid.) The court further found evidence of reckless conduct sufficient to raise a triable issue of material fact where a swim coach required a student to dive into a shallow pool without providing her any training, after promising she would not be required to dive. (Id. at p. 996.) The court specifically relied on the following evidence: "the lack of training in the shallow‑water dive disclosed by plaintiff's evidence, especially in the face of the sequences training recommended in the Red Cross manual submitted by plaintiff; the coach's awareness of plaintiff's deep-seated fear of such diving; his conduct in lulling her into a false sense of security through a promise that she would not be required to dive, thereby eliminating any motivation on her part to learn to dive safely; his last-minute breach of that promise under the pressure of a competitive meet; and his threat to remove her from the team or at least the meet if she refused to dive." (Id. at p. 1012.)

 Here, Azad has alleged gross negligence on the part of both her instructor and the equestrian center. Gross negligence is defined as " ' "the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct." ' " (Eastburn v. Regional Fire Protection Authority (2003) 31 Cal.4th 1175, 1185-1186, quoting Franz v. Board of Medical Quality Assurance (1982) 31 Cal.3d 124, 138.) This definition is similar to the standard employed in Kahnóconduct totally outside the range of ordinary activity. Therefore, we consider whether Azad has provided any evidence of an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.

 Azad relies almost exclusively on evidence from her expert, Cooke. However Cooke's testimony does not demonstrate an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. Cooke states that the railing should have been higher, it was "recommended" that a ring be used for only one lesson, the choice of rings was "inappropriate," and Samel's response was "inappropriate." Samel should have "immediately had her student dismount." Cooke also states that Samel was "inadequately trained," but provides no basis for this conclusion. Thus, this case is not like Kahn, where the plaintiff provided an established training manual and showed an extreme departure from this manual in that there was evidence she received no training at all. Because Azad identifies no extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct, she fails to raise a triable issue of material fact. The trial court correctly entered summary judgment in favor of MCEC. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 850.)

DISPOSITION

 The judgment is affirmed.


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