University of Vermont AAHS

 

Riding Instructor’s Legal Liability for Injuries to Students During Lessons: Part Two

By
Robert O. Dawson
Professor of Law
University of Texas
School of Law

AAHS Secretary/Treasurer

[reproduced from Fall 2000 Caution:Horses Volume 5, No. 3]

In the HorseLaw article published in the Summer 2000 issue of Caution:Horses, I discussed the legal duty of a riding instructor to provide a reasonably safe lesson to a student, what inquiries the instructor must make to determine the student’s abilities, and how, if at all, this legal picture is changed by an equine activity statute in the jurisdiction.

Here, I discuss how the legal picture is changed by the experience and ability of the student and what, if any, duty the riding instructor has to monitor the safety of a lesson once it has begun.

 

Student’s Experience and Ability. The plaintiff in Hammond v. Spruce Meadow Farm, Inc., 605 N.Y.S.2d 586 (N.Y.A.D. 1993) was injured when she fell from a horse during a lesson. She was an experienced rider, the horse she was riding was leased by her, and she was familiar with the facility where the accident occurred. The riding conditions were muddy and she claimed that the instructor was negligent in permitting her to ride under those circumstances. She also claimed that the horse she was riding was too spirited for her abilities. The riding instructor asked for a summary judgment in her favor on the ground that the student voluntarily assumed the risk of such an injury, but the trial court denied that request. The New York Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court and said that the instructor should win without having to go to trial because due to her experience the student assumed the risk of falling in this manner:

"In light of the considerable experience of plaintiff in riding horses, her admitted familiarity with the particular horse and premises, and her awareness and appreciation of the risks inherent in riding and jumping the horse in wet and muddy conditions, we conclude that plaintiff assumed the risk of her injuries as a matter of law."

Obviously, if the student were inexperienced, particularly an inexperienced child, the liability picture would be changed considerably.

Plaintiff attempted to come under an exception to the assumption of risk doctrine for people who assume risks under the duress of economic compulsion, but that didn’t work:

"Plaintiff attempts to raise a triable question of fact by alleging that the horse was "unsuitable" and "too much of a horse" for her to ride; however, it is clear that the alleged dangerous propensities of the horse played no part in causing the accident. Further, we reject plaintiff's claim of "inherent compulsion" Assuming, arguendo, that Hawkes was a "superior", plaintiff cannot show "‘an economic compulsion or other circumstance which equally impel[led]' compliance with" Hawkes' [the instructor] direction."

Once again, an inexperienced rider or inexperienced child rider would have a better chance of showing that he or she was coerced into riding in the dangerous circumstances by the instructor.

Plaintiff Brandt in Young v. Brandt, 485 S.E.2d 519 (Ga.App. 1997) was injured when a stallion (named Loverboy) she was riding during a lesson taught by defendant Young threw her and kicked her in the face. A jury awarded her $250,000, but on appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that by her experience and ability, plaintiff had assumed the risk of being injured in this manner.

Plaintiff claimed that the instructor was negligent in using hunter/jumper tack rather than the dressage tack to which she was accustomed and that the stallion had dangerous propensities, since he had bucked before. However, the Court of Appeals rejected these arguments on the ground that plaintiff was an experienced equestrienne who knew of the risks in this situation and voluntarily assumed them:

"Although Brandt testified she was relying on Young's knowledge of both the horse and her own riding skills, and she contends she did not assume the risk of being thrown and kicked because she did not know Loverboy had any such propensity, her testimony established that she voluntarily assumed the risk of riding this horse with full awareness of the risks associated with so doing. She testified that she knew that the hunter/jumper tack was on and that there was no lunge line. She also testified that she was aware of no defects in the tack. She knew Loverboy was a stallion; knew stallions are unpredictable and can be hard to handle; knew he had bucked with her on prior occasions; knew horses buck, rear up, and can be spooked; knew horses can bolt and can kick; knew horses could be unpredictable, bothered by sudden movements, unfamiliar objects, and unfamiliar people; knew horses could throw a person in any number of ways; and knew horses could kick or injure in any number of ways. "

"Further, Brandt's testimony shows she participated in putting the tack on Loverboy that day. While Brandt may have preferred to use the dressage tack, hunter/jumper tack or dressage tack is merely a matter of the rider's preference. She rode hunter/jumper tack as a child and went to a clinic on hunter/jumper tack. "

"Moreover, Brandt was not an inexperienced rider. She started riding when she was 10 years old and was actively involved in the U.S. Pony Club from ages 10-18. She took riding lessons for years and worked on a farm. In the Pony Club she reached "B" rider status, the third highest ranking, and had a "HA" rating in book knowledge on horses and riding, the highest ranking. Brandt also had an Associate of Arts degree in animal husbandry."

"Brandt has ridden other show horses. She rode from three to five times a week at appellants' farm where she rode several different horses, including Loverboy, and may have ridden Loverboy as many as 20 times. At the time of the accident she was teaching riding to beginners and intermediate level riders, and she returned to teaching riding after the accident."

"Considering all of these factors, it cannot be said reasonably that Brandt did not assume the risks of her injuries as a matter of law. Her testimony shows that she had a full appreciation of the dangers involved in horseback riding and particularly riding a stallion, yet freely decided to ride Loverboy knowing that the tack was not to her personal preference and that there was no lunge line. Because she admitted that she knew all horses can buck and kick, and Loverboy had bucked with her, it is immaterial that Brandt did not know that on one prior occasion Loverboy may have bucked and kicked one of the appellants. Brandt is not allowed to say that she did not comprehend this risk which she has admitted was well known to her. This is not a case in which the horse deliberately kicked Brandt; the evidence shows that she was bucked from the horse and was kicked while the horse continued bucking."

Once again, the experience of the student was the controlling factor in the outcome of this case. The experience of the student put her on a par with the instructor in responsibility for assuring the safety of the lesson, at least in the absence of a specific, gross departure by the instructor from safe lesson practices. The Court of Appeals wiped out the $250,000 verdict the jury had given to the student for the accident.

Editor's Note: Part III of this article will be included in the Winter 2000 issue of Caution:Horses.


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