University of Vermont AAHS

Hodnett v. Sheldon


United States District Court, Maryland
UNPUBLISHED, 1993 WL 643428
December 9, 1993

Summary of Opinion

The plaintiff Hodnett was a social guest at the home of the Sheldons. They offered plaintiff the opportunity to ride one of their horses. While riding the horse she was thrown off. The trial court refused to grant defendants' motion for summary judgment and in this opinion the trial court explains why. There may be issues of whether the horse had a dangerous propensity for this activity and if so whether the defendants knew or should have known of it. There may also be questions of fact concerning the plaintiff's appreciation of the risk she was undertaking. Trial is needed to resolve those matter.

Text of Opinion

On September 29, 1991, the Plaintiff, Marie Hodnett, with her boyfriend, Danny Sheldon, visited Danny's uncle and aunt, Donald and Sheryl Sheldon ("the Sheldons"), at their home in Elkton, Maryland. At that time, the Sheldons owned four (4) horses which they stabled and rode at their home. During the visit, the Sheldons extended, and Ms. Hodnett accepted, an invitation to ride one of the horses. While riding in a corral on the Sheldons' property, Ms. Hodnett was thrown from the horse and suffered a broken arm and wrist.

Ms. Hodnett on October 28, 1992, initiated the above-captioned tort action against the Sheldons. Seeking to recover monetary damages, Ms. Hodnett advances two distinct legal theories: negligence and strict liability. The parties have completed discovery, and presently before the Court is the Sheldons' motion for summary judgment. The Court has reviewed the memoranda and exhibits attached thereto; no hearing is deemed necessary. Summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine dispute of material fact and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. As the party opposing summary judgment, Ms. Hodnett is entitled to have all facts, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, construed in the most favorable light. Given these familiar summary judgment standards, as well as the relevant tort law of Maryland, the Court concludes that material and genuine disputes of fact remain which preclude the entry of summary judgment.

To prevail on her tort claims, Ms. Hodnett must establish that (1) the Sheldons owed her a duty, (2) the Sheldons violated said duty and (3) the Sheldons' breach of duty was the actual and proximate cause of her injury. The Sheldons contend that the record is devoid of any evidence suggesting that they violated the duty or duties which they owed to Ms. Hodnett, and that consequently, summary judgment is appropriate. " 'Duty' has been defined as 'an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.' ". The existence of a legal duty owed by one to another depends on the nature of their relationship. Maryland recognizes that the Sheldons owed Ms. Hodnett two distinct duties based on their status as landowners and their status as owners of a domestic animal. "The liability of owners of real property is dependent on the standard of care owed to the individual and that in turn is contingent upon a determination of the individual's status on the property, i.e., whether he is an invitee, licensee or trespasser." On September 29, 1991, Ms. Hodnett was the Sheldons' social guest and thus a "licensee by invitation."

The conditions imposing liability on hosts for injuries sustained by their social guests are that (1) the host knows or has reason to know of the conditions and should realize that [they] involve an unreasonable risk of harm to such guests, and should expect that [the guests] will not discover or realize the danger, (2) the host fails to exercise reasonable care to make the conditions safe or to warn the guest of a condition and the risk involved, and (3) the guests do not know or have reason to know of the condition and the risk involved.

In light of Ms. Hodnett's status as a "social guest," the Sheldons were obligated to "exercise reasonable care to make the premises safe for [her] or [to] warn [her] of known dangerous conditions that cannot reasonably be discovered and which in fact are not discovered by the guest."

Similarly, if the Sheldons knew about their horse's tendency to throw riders, as owners of a domestic animal, they may be deemed strictly liable for Ms. Hodnett's injuries. To prevail on a theory of strict liability, Ms. Hodnett must establish that the Sheldons "knew or, with reasonable care, should have known that the animal had a propensity to commit the particular type of mischief that was the cause of harm."

Moreover, under a negligence theory, the Sheldons, as owners of a domestic animal, may be legally responsible for Ms. Hodnett's injuries even if they were "unaware of any mischievous propensity on the animal's part, if [they] failed to exercise reasonable care in controlling the animal or preventing the harm caused by him."

In order to be deemed negligent in failing to prevent the harm caused by an animal, one must be shown to have exercised ineffective control of an animal in a situation where it would reasonably be expected that injury would occur, and injury does proximately result from the negligence. The amount of control required is that which would be exercised by a reasonable person based upon the total situation at the time, including the past behavior of the animal and the injuries that could have been reasonably foreseen.

After reviewing those aspects of the record submitted by the parties, the Court concludes that genuine factual disputes exist concerning the Sheldons' knowledge, or lack thereof, of their horse's tendency to throw riders. Similarly, a review of the record reveals a factual dispute regarding the reasonableness of Mr. Sheldon's conduct on the day of Ms. Hodnett's accident.

In light of these factual disputes, the Court is unable to conclude, as a matter of law, that Ms. Hodnett will be unable to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, each element of the above-described causes of action.

Finally, the Court is unprepared to declare that Ms. Hodnett, as a matter of law, assumed the risk of being thrown from the Sheldons' horse. The Sheldons argue that "Plaintiff recognized the potential danger in riding any horse and thus, assume [sic] the risk of injury.... The potential of any horse to buck, rear or throw a rider is common knowledge. Any person who voluntarily mounts a horse assumes the risk that the horse may act in any number of ways for any number of reasons. Recognizing that a horse is a much larger animal than a human, a rider also realizes that controlling a horse is not always possible." The defense of assumption of risk rests upon the plaintiff's consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of harm from a particular risk.... When the plaintiff enters voluntarily into a relation or situation involving obvious danger, he may be taken to assume the risk, and to relieve the defendant of responsibility. Such implied assumption of risk requires knowledge and appreciation of the risk, and a voluntary choice to encounter it. "The test of whether the plaintiff knows of, and appreciates, the risk involved in a particular situation is an objective one, and ordinarily is a question to be resolved by the jury. While the Sheldons urge the Court to remove the assumption of risk question from the jury, the very fact that Maryland courts have addressed the tort exposure of horse owners when voluntary riders are thrown off their horses and injured, reveals that the Sheldons' legal argument is overstated.

For the foregoing reasons, the Sheldons' motion for summary judgment will be denied.

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