University of Vermont AAHS

Mounted Accidents--A Quiz

by

Robert O. Dawson

Professor of Law,

University of Texas School of Law

For this installment of HorseLaw, we have a quiz. I will give you facts from some actual cases dealing with riding accidents. Those facts raise legal questions, which you are to answer. I will then tell you what answer the appellate courts gave. Of course, a different court might answer the legal questions differently and certainly a change in some of the facts might change the legal issues raised and the outcome of the case.

Since most equestrian injuries result from riders falling off horses, we will concentrate on mounted accidents.

1. The Little Release that Could

Sandy signed a release form before taking her first riding lesson at the Farm. The release did not state how long it lasted, but simply released the Farm from liability for equestrian injuries. Eighteen months later, Sandy was injured while taking a jumping lesson. She argued (a) that the release she signed was good only for the lesson she took the day it was signed, not for the lesson in which she was injured 18 months later; and (b) that she signed the release without reading it and in the mistaken belief its purpose was so she could be included under the Farm's insurance coverage. She should not, therefore, be held to it. Is she correct on either count?

The Illinois Court of Appeals held that the release applied to the lesson taken 18 months after it was signed. The court stated, "Where no definite time is fixed during which a contract continues, it is terminable at the will of either party.... Since the release had not been terminated by either party, we [find] that the release continued to be effective on the day of the accident."

As to the claim that Sandy signed the release without reading it and from a mistake as to its nature, the court said, "A party has a general duty to read documents before he signs them, and his failure to do so will not render the document invalid." There was no misrepresentation made to Sandy as to the nature of the document she was signing such that she could claim she was induced fraudulently to sign it.

Therefore, even though the accident might have been caused by the negligence of the jumping instructor, the instructor and the Farm win because of the release.

Bien v. Fox Meadow Farms, Ltd., 574 N.E.2d 1311 (Ill.App. 1991).

2. Just Being a Horse

Charlene and four other persons went on a trail ride escorted by two wranglers. About 20 to 30 minutes into the ride, one of the young girls complained she was cold. Charlene decided to give the jacket she was wearing to the young girl. Having experienced no problems with the horse during the ride, Charlene wrapped the reins around the saddle horn. She then started to remove her jacket from her shoulders. While both of her arms were still in the sleeves and caught behind her, the horse suddenly spooked. Charlene tried, but was unable, to remain on the panicked horse. When the horse bucked for the second time, Charlene was thrown to the ground landing on her tailbone.

Unbeknown to Charlene, on a previous ride, this same horse had spooked and thrown a rider when that rider took off and waved a hat. The wranglers neither warned Charlene of this prior incident nor did they re-train the horse to avoid the recurrence of a similar incident.

Charlene claimed that the Ranch was negligent (a) in not providing a safe horse for her to ride and (b) that the Ranch had a duty to warn her of the horse's propensity to spook. Is she correct?

The California Court of Appeals stated that the Ranch owed a duty to supply reasonably safe horses and to warn of known dangerous propensities. "[A] whole host of duties can be ascribed to commercial providers of horse riding facilities, i.e., not to provide faulty saddles, bridles and other equipment, not to provide dangerous trails, not to provide horses that are shodded poorly and the list can go on and on. However, in this case we stop short of imposing a duty on stable owners to provide 'ideal' riding horses such that they never buck, bite, break into a trot, stumble or 'spook' when confronted by a frightening event on the trail such as a shadow or snake or react to peculiar movements of a rider such as excessive spurring or waving of a coat as in this case. We view sudden movements of a horse just as inherent in horseback riding as the presence of moguls on a ski slope are to skiers."

The prior spooking incident did not create a duty to warn since it is not unusual for a horse to act like a horse in the face of provocation such as waving a hat or removing a jacket and such behavior is not, therefore, a dangerous propensity for a horse.

Harrold v. Rolling "J" Ranch, 23 Cal.Rptr.2d 671 (Cal.App. 1993).

3. First Bite at the Apple

Penny was working at the Stables in exchange for riding lessons. After about 10 days, she was riding a horse named Jack for the fourth time. The owner suggested that she ride Jack in a small paddock, but at Penny's request she was permitted to ride in a much larger pasture. While walking the horse in the pasture, Jack began to move faster than Penny wanted him to when they approached the lane back to the barn. She turned him away from the direction of the barn and let him trot, but he began to canter. She stopped him, got off and walked him around. Jack appeared to calm down, so Penny re-mounted. As she was partially mounted, Jack bolted and ran toward the barn. He did not stop until he was inside the barn, when he stopped suddenly, throwing Penny over his shoulder, severely injuring her.

In her lawsuit, Penny contended that Jack's owner had a duty to warn her of the risk that he might bolt for the barn. The trial court disagreed and found in favor of the owner. Was the judge correct?

The Ohio Court of Appeals said that Penny was required to show that the owners knew "of some trait, condition or propensity from which a probability of the horse's actions might reasonably be inferred." She presented no evidence that Jack had ever engaged in the same or similar behavior in the past. The owner had no duty to warn this experienced rider that any horse might behave in this fashion since she is presumed to know that.

Mason v. Komlo, 621 N.E.2d 716 (Ohio App. 1993).

4. A Leg Up--And Over

Marc was an inexperienced rider. He, his wife and child decided to rent horses for a trail ride while on vacation. They were assured that the horses were docile and safe. A ranch employee held the reins for Marc while he attempted to mount the horse. When Marc had difficulty mounting, the owner helped him by lifting him up onto the horse's back. The horse started to circle and back up, and eventually it began to buck. The horse pulled the reins away from the ranch employee and threw Marc to the ground. Marc's left ankle was severely broken as a result of the fall.

The trial court ruled in favor of the horse owner on the ground they were insulated from liability by the Wyoming Equine Activity Act. The trial court said, "Getting thrown off or falling from a horse is an inherent risk in riding any horse. The risk is therefore intrinsic to the sport and one which cannot be reasonably altered, eliminated or controlled." Is the trial court correct?

The Wyoming Supreme Court said, "A risk must satisfy two requirements in order to be classified as being an inherent risk. The risk must be characteristic of or intrinsic to the sport or recreational opportunity and it must be one which cannot be reasonably eliminated, altered, or controlled. A provider has no duty to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks of an activity, and any person who chooses to take part in a sport or recreational opportunity assumes all inherent risks which are associated with that opportunity."

However, in this particular case, the court concluded that questions of fact were presented as to whether the horse owner could have assisted Marc in mounting the horse in a different manner and, thereby reduced or eliminated the risks which are associated with mounting. Those questions must be answered by a judge or jury in a trial. Therefore, the trial court was incorrect in ruling as it did.

Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562 (Wyo. 1995).


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