University of Vermont AAHS

Harrold v. Rolling "J" Ranch


California Court of Appeal
19 Cal.App.4th 578, 23 Cal.Rptr.2d 671
October 15, 1993

Summary of Opinion

Mrs. Harrold was on a trial ride provided by defendant ranch. While on the ride, she attempted to remove a coat to lend to a child who had complained of being cold. The horse bucked and threw her. The trial court entered a summary judgment for the defendants.

The Court of Appeals held that what happened in this case was within the scope of the ordinary and necessary risks of horseback riding. There was no showing that the defendants were in any way negligent as related to this accident.

Text of Opinion

In September 1983, plaintiffs Charlene and John Harrold (collectively referred to as the Harrolds) became members of a resort owned by defendant Great Outdoor American Adventures, Inc. (GOAA). In November 1983, the Harrolds took a weekend vacation at GOAA's resort. There, the Harrolds learned GOAA offered horseback riding to its members at nearby stables. The stables were operated by defendant Rolling J Ranch.

Charlene Harrold, two of her friends, and two young girls chose to go horseback riding. GOAA transported the group to the Rolling J stables. There, the group members were given their choice of horses. Ms. Harrold initially chose one horse but, after some misgivings, selected another horse to ride for the day. After the riders selected their horses, Rolling J employees saddled the horses.

The five riders were escorted by two wranglers. One wrangler rode at the head of the group and the other at the end. The wranglers were employed by Rolling J. Before starting the ride, the riders were instructed on certain basics of horseback riding, such as how to signal and command the horse. The riders were also warned not to run the horses.

About 20 to 30 minutes into the ride, one of the young girls complained she was cold. Ms. Harrold decided to give the jacket she was wearing to the young girl. Having experienced no problems with the horse during the ride, Ms. Harrold 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. Ms. Harrold tried, but was unable, to remain on the panicked horse. When the horse bucked for the second time, Ms. Harrold was thrown to the ground landing on her tailbone. Unbeknown to Ms. Harrold, on a previous ride, this same horse had spooked and thrown a rider when that rider took off and waved a hat. Defendants neither warned Ms. Harrold of this prior incident nor did they retrain the horse to avoid the recurrence of a similar incident.

The evidence before the trial court concerning the summary judgment motion showed Ms. Harrold had prior experience with horses. However, the evidence was in conflict as to the degree of her expertise.

Ms. Harrold knew how to guide a horse to the left and right, make it stop, trot, and gallop, and how to bridle and saddle a horse. In a note prepared for the stables explaining how the accident occurred, Ms. Harrold wrote: "I am an experienced rider and I understand that I was the second person thrown by the same horse. I guess even the best are thrown.... Accidents happen." In her deposition, Ms. Harrold explained her reference to "the best being thrown" was not intended to refer to herself. Rather, it was a general comment referring to "any good rider." Further, she considered a person to be an experienced rider if she could saddle and ride a horse.

The evidence also showed Ms. Harrold never rode a horse more often than once a month, she had never been a member of a riding club or academy, and she had never taken care of horses or fallen off of one. Further, she always rode with one of her adult sons. Additionally, she had only ridden a horse once in the five years preceding the accident.

The trial court granted the summary judgment motion, stating: "Maybe it's because of the disadvantage. I have a little too much knowledge of ... horses, and that's why I think when you get on a horse and you are going to ride on [sic] the outdoors, whether there are wranglers all over, you are assuming a risk that you can fall off the horse." The Harrolds timely appealed.

The critical inquiry is whether the riding stable owes a duty of care to riders who rent horses for trail rides. Having been well focused by the high court on the element of duty in Jewett, unlike our previous holding, we now conclude there are no triable issues as to whether the assumption of the risk defense constitutes an absolute bar to appellants'action. Accordingly, summary judgment was proper and we affirm the judgment. Under the analysis adopted in the "plurality" decision in Jewett, assumption of the risk is an absolute defense only when public policy dictates the class of which a defendant is a member should owe no duty of care to the class of which a plaintiff is a member in relation to the activity in which they are involved. According to this analysis, the inquiry does not begin with the question whether the plaintiff assumed the risk, in this instance the question whether this rider subjectively comprehended the precise risk this particular horse was easily spooked. Rather the inquiry begins--and ends--with an analysis of whether the defendant owed a duty to a plaintiff.

This is the form of analysis the plurality itself used in Knight v. Jewett to determine whether primary assumption of the risk applied. In that case, the parties were coparticipants in a touch football game. Most if not all participants in such competitive contact sports are aware there is a risk of injury through overexuberant play by other players. But that subjective appreciation of risk was not the focal point of the Supreme Court's attention. Rather the plurality opinion, at least, looked to the policy implications of imposing a duty of care on participants toward their coparticipants in these contests. The high court decided public policy considerations militated against a duty of care, primarily because

vigorous participation in such sporting events likely would be chilled if legal liability were to be imposed on a participant on the basis of his or her ordinary careless conduct.... [E]ven when a participant's conduct violates a rule of the game and may subject the violator to internal sanctions prescribed by the sport itself, imposition of legal liability for such conduct might well alter fundamentally the nature of the sport by deterring participants from vigorously engaging in activity that falls close to, but on the permissible side of, a prescribed rule.

(Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296, 318-319, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696.)

Thus, under the plurality view in Jewett the question whether the rider in this case was subjectively aware of the precise danger (the horse she rented had a predisposition to spook) and voluntarily chose to ride this particular horse despite that knowledge is irrelevant to whether the riding stable which rented her the horse owed her a duty of care to provide safe horses or at least warn riders of dangerous ones. The analysis here as in Jewett properly focuses on the policy factors affecting the defendant's duty to the plaintiff in the context of this particular activity. The question is: Do riding stables in the business of renting horses to members of the general public for purposes of trail rides owe a duty of due care toward those who rent those horses?

Jewett answered one set of questions in the field of recreational activities--the extent of the duties participants in recreational activities owe to each other. However, although once again arising in the context of recreational activities, the instant case raises a different issue--the duties commercial operators of recreational activities owe to members of the public to whom they sell their recreational services.

Jewett contains extensive discussion of this issue in the course of explaining the scope and rationale of primary assumption of the risk. In this discussion, the Supreme Court went out of its way to distinguish between participants and commercial operators, emphasizing commercial operators of recreational facilities, such as baseball parks and ski resorts, might owe duties to other participants and spectators which participants would not owe to participants or to spectators. As the high court observed: "[T]he scope of the legal duty owed by a defendant frequently will also depend on the defendant's role in, or relationship to, the sport. "The latter point is demonstrated by a review of one of the numerous cases involving an injury sustained by a spectator at a baseball game. In Ratcliff v. San Diego Baseball Club (1938) 27 Cal.App.2d 733, 81 P.2d 625, a baseball spectator was injured when, walking in the stands between home plate and first base during a game, she was hit by an accidentally thrown bat. She sued both the player who threw the bat and the baseball stadium owner. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the player, but found the stadium owner liable. On appeal, the Court of Appeal affirmed.

Had the Ratcliff court utilized an implied consent analysis, the court would have looked only to the knowledge of the particular plaintiff (the spectator) to determine whether the risk of being hit by an accidentally thrown bat was an inherent risk of the sport of baseball assumed by the plaintiff, and would have treated the plaintiff's action against both defendants similarly with regard to such risk. The Ratcliff court did not analyze the case in that manner, however. Instead, the court implicitly recognized that two different potential duties were at issue--(1) the duty of the ballplayer to play the game without carelessly throwing his bat, and (2) the duty of the stadium owner to provide a reasonably safe stadium with regard to the relatively common (but particularly dangerous) hazard of a thrown bat. Because each defendant's liability rested on a separate duty, there was no inconsistency in the jury verdict absolving the batter of liability but imposing liability on the stadium owner for its failure to provide the patron 'protection from flying bats, at least in the area where the greatest danger exists and when such an occurrence is reasonably to be expected.

The plurality opinion in Jewett likewise explained the duty of care a commercial sports operator owes participants (as contrasted to spectators).

Although defendants generally have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport. Thus although a ski resort has no duty to remove moguls from a ski run, it clearly does have a duty to use due care to maintain its tow ropes in a safe, working condition so as not to expose skiers to an increased risk of harm. The cases establish that the latter type of risk, posed by a ski resort's negligence, clearly is not a risk (inherent in the sport) that is assumed by a participant.

The general principle which may be extracted from this discussion in Jewett is that commercial operators of sports and recreational facilities owe a duty of care to their patrons. In general terms, that duty is to ensure the facilities and related services which are provided do not increase the risk of injury above the level inherent in the sport or recreational activity itself. A commercial operator violates this duty if, for instance, it sells or rents its patrons defective equipment which aggravates the patrons' risk of injury.

The recreational activity here, of course, was horseback riding, specifically supervised trail riding with horses rented from the commercial operator of this horseriding recreational service and with "wranglers" the operator employed to guide and supervise the trail ride. The commercial operator received compensation from the riders, both for renting them the horses and supplying them with "wranglers."

There is no doubt horseback riding, even the rather tame sport of riding on the back of walking horses in an afternoon trail ride, carries some inherent risk of injury. A horse can stumble or rear or suddenly break into a gallop, any of which may throw the rider. But this does not necessarily mean the commercial operator of the horseriding facility owes no duty of care to those who rent its horses and can never be liable for injuries suffered because a horse stumbles, rears, or suddenly breaks into a gallop. The commercial operator has a duty to supply horses which are not unduly dangerous. Furthermore, the operator owes the duty to warn the patrons renting a given horse if that horse has evidenced a predisposition to behave in ways which add to the ordinary risk of horse riding.

This level of duty is consistent with duties owed by commercial operators of other forms of recreational facilities such as ski resorts. Skiing is an inherently dangerous sport. But this does not mean ski resort operators avoid owing a duty to skiers to supply them with nondefective ski lifts and trails. Nor does the inherent danger which goes along with participating in or watching other sports mean the commercial operators of facilities offering these activities owe no duty of care toward participants or spectators. (Meistrich v. Casino Arena Attractions (1959) 31 N.J. 44, 155 A.2d 90) [ice rink owes duty to skaters not to supply unusually hard and slippery ice]; Rosenberger v. Central Louisiana Dist. Livestock Show, Inc. (La.1975) 312 So.2d 300 [rodeo arena owes duty to spectators regarding operation and maintenance of arena].

Likewise, a whole host of duties can be ascribed to commercial providers of horseriding 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--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.

Public policy supports not imposing a duty on commercial operators of horse renting facilities which provide supervised trail rides, to supply "ideal" horses, but we stop short of eliminating any duty such as a duty to warn of a dangerous propensity in a given horse. However, the one prior incident of the subject horse having spooked does not rise to the level of a dangerous propensity, in our opinion. It does rise to the level of a "horse behaving as a horse" with no incumbent duty on the part of the stable operator. In our opinion, to impose some sort of duty on a lessor of horses when a "horse acts as a horse" is to tell the commercial world that strict liability is imposed for any action of a horse inherent in horseback riding, with the concomitant result that in all probability all commercial horseback riding will cease because of the risk involved to those that are self-insured or by reason of the prohibitive expense to obtain liability insurance for such an enterprise.

We might add that here there indeed was evidence plaintiff rider had been contributorily negligent. She took her hands off the reins for a moment to unselfishly remove her coat to hand to a co-rider, a young girl, who was complaining of the cold. But this act of contributory negligence is immaterial as the Supreme Court has taught us in Jewett. Consequently, we are unwilling and do not impose on purveyors of horse rides a duty when a horse "acts" as a horse, any more than we would impose a general duty on commercial small boat operators when a wave suddenly moves a boat causing a passenger to be unbalanced and injured.

We find that the trial court was correct in concluding the action brought by the Harrolds was barred by primary assumption of the risk.

The judgment is affirmed. Respondents to recover their costs on appeal.

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