University of Vermont AAHS

Reading the Appellate Opinions

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Spring 2001 Caution:Horses, Vol. 6, No. 1]


Often when the layman reads the appellate opinions it appears that the court had no inkling about the subject matter. This is certainly true when one reads the equine cases. To understand better what is happening we need to better understand what that appellate opinion represents and the context in which it exists. This means also recognizing that the vast majority of cases are settled without ever going to court. Most of the rest are settled by the judge’s granting the defense motion for summary judgment, which means the defense wins and the case is over. However, the ruling may be appealed as one can see from the opinions on the Website and the case may go on.

The motion for summary judgment viewed simplistically is an examination of the evidence that would be admissible at trial and in part requires a finding by the court that there is no issue of material fact for anybody to decide; hence the end of the case.

In the cases that are settled with even less than a motion for summary judgment the lawyers on each side compare their evidence and basically try the case informally. Many jurisdictions even have rules about mandatory settlement conferences and mandatory mediation. These conferences are different than arbitration, which exists outside the trial context.

But now we need to back up a bit. When cases go to court there are two types of questions that must be decided: questions of law, which are the territory of the judge, and questions of fact, which are the territory of the "fact finder" which may be the jury or the judge. The plaintiff and defendant get to choose who decides questions of fact but most pick a jury rather than a judge in negligence cases.

Questions of law are questions such as whether a release is too vague in its language or whether the wording of an equine activity statute covers a particular incident. The judge will also rule on questions about what kind of evidence can be presented to the jury and what kind of information one side can be compelled to produce for the other side to look at. This is all the territory of the judge who must say what the law is. Of course the lawyers for all the parties get to present their interpretations of what they think the law is in each case but the judge gets to decide.

The jury’s job is to decide the facts. Did the riding instructor behave in a reasonable manner? Did the riding student commit an act that caused his or her own injury? Questions such as whether the trainer really represented the horse that hurt the child to be "bomb proof" are the territory of the jury. The jury gets to decide who to believe or what version of the accident is most plausible.

All that sounds simple and it is if people can agree. But if the could have agreed they would have settled the case. Cases that go to the jury are cases in which reasonable minds can differ, that is, those in which the two sides could not come together. When they cannot work it out and come to a meeting of the minds then the case goes to trial and the facts are decided by people on the jury, who generally know little or nothing about anything in the case before they get to the courtroom.

The problem with having a jury decide the facts is that one never knows what they will do. If it were known, the case would have settled. That means that jury trials are similar to a crap game. One never really knows how they will come out which is why most intelligent lawyers will go to great length to try to settle their cases.

What makes for the sometimes-odd appellate opinions often hinges on what happened in the courtroom. The judge cannot rule on what is not presented and the jury can only consider facts in evidence. For instance if the judge rules that some piece of evidence in not admissible for some reason, then the jury won’t hear about it or at the very least will be instructed not to consider it. To some it may have been an important piece of evidence but due to a procedural problem it cannot, in that judge’s opinion, be admitted. Or in other words, the jury cannot be permitted to consider it.

Sometimes facts that we as horse people take for granted are totally left out of the jury’s consideration because a lawyer did not ask the right questions and so there was no testimony to the fact and so as far as the jury was concerned, it didn’t exist. Sometimes cases are tried without an expert witness and the lawyer relies on the testimony of the parties and necessary facts and standards don’t get in evidence at all.

When the jury returns its verdict, either side may appeal. In an appeal, with very rare exceptions, the appellate court cannot re-examine the facts but may only review legal rulings by the trial court. If the appellate court agrees with the trial court then the verdict stands. If the appellate court finds a problem with the trial, the most common remedy is to send the case back to have it retried. At this point the parties usually attempt settlement again and with more success. Many cases are also settled after the trial and before what may be a lengthy and tiring appellate process.

Lawsuits are at best unpleasant and at worst the most psychologically damaging experiences one can imagine. It is a foolish lawyer who seeks vindication for his clients in court without a serious effort at settlement. It is also a foolish client who refuses a fair settlement simply for the sake putting the opponent through the agony of a trial.

A trial is something that most want to avoid if it can be done without forfeiting the rights of one party or the other. But once the accident has happened there may be no sure way to avoid the trial. So the best policy remains: AVOID THE ACCIDENT in the first place.

Return to Top of This Page
Return to Litigation Corner Articles Page