University of Vermont AAHS

Gorlin v. Jacobson

Ventura County Superior Court
2005 WL 3163537
Unpublished Opinion
November 29, 2005

Summary of Case

Plaintiff Gorlin was injured during a riding lesson when her already bucking horse was caused to trip abruptly.  Plaintiff fell when owner’s daughter ran at the horse shouting “whoa.”  Court held that falling from the horse was within those risks contemplated by the release.

Text of Opinion

Plaintiff Charlene Gorlin appeals a judgment from the first stage of a bifurcated trial in favor of defendants David Jacobson, Jean Jacobson, Sweet Spot Farms (collectively Jacobsons) and Natalie Jean. Gorlin sustained injuries from a fall during a horseback riding lesson at the Jacobsons' ranch after Jean interrupted the lesson and startled the horse. We conclude the trial court properly admitted parol evidence to find that Gorlin had signed a release of liability agreement which barred her from pursuing this action. We affirm.


Gorlin took horseback riding lessons from instructor Vallory McGraw at the Jacobsons' ranch. During one riding lesson, Gorlin's horse "started to buck." McGraw stated in her deposition that Gorlin "was completely balanced on the horse even though the horse was bucking." McGraw told Gorlin, "Keep him moving. Keep his head up. Sit deep." But Jean, the adult daughter of the Jacobsons, ran towards the horse and yelled, " 'whoa.' " The horse followed Jean's command to stop, causing Gorlin to fall and sustain injuries. Before this incident, Jean's mother had repeatedly told Jean that she was not authorized to be at the training area. Gorlin sued Jean and the Jacobsons for negligence. They raised the defense of assumption of the risk.
The Summary Judgment Motion
Jean and the Jacobsons moved for summary judgment. They said that Gorlin had signed a release of liability (riding agreement) before she took riding lessons on their ranch. It said in relevant part: "I ... forever release and discharge Jean and David Jacobson and all other persons ... who are or might be liable in any way, of and from any claims, demands, actions, or causes of action ... which I may have against any of them, arising from or by reason of any and all, known and unknown, foreseen and unforeseen bodily and personal injuries ... which I ... may sustain by reason of entering upon the property ... for the purposes of riding, grooming, or handling horses...."
Gorlin later signed a "boarding agreement" where the Jacobsons agreed to take care of Gorlin's horse. It said in part: "It is agreed that during the term of this contractual agreement the risk of loss shall be assumed by the Owner [Gorlin] in the event of loss or injury of the horse(s) and equipment and ... Gorlin agrees to hold [the Jacobsons] harmless from such loss or injury. Owner furthermore agrees to hold Operator harmless from any claim resulting from damage or injury caused by said horses except when caused by the negligence of the operator."
Gorlin submitted a declaration opposing summary judgment from Rod Bergen, an equine expert. He said the standard of care requires the student rider to be "solely in the hands of his/her instructor and does not allow for any outside interference...."
The court denied the motion.
The Bifurcated Trial
The trial court ruled there was a conflict between the riding agreement's release of liability provisions and the boarding agreement's liability provision. It determined parol evidence was needed to resolve the ambiguity. It said, "it would be more efficient to take up the contract issue first, then the negligence issue." It held a bifurcated trial on what the parties intended when they signed the two agreements. It excluded evidence about the accident and Jean's conduct.

The Jacobsons testified all horse riders must sign the riding agreement regardless of whether they boarded horses there. Gorlin signed the boarding agreement. She said, "I was boarding my horse there and I knew there was going to be an agreement for the purpose of that, and I don't remember ... that it was more than that."
The court found that the boarding agreement did not modify the riding agreement's release of liability provision and it was "obligated to enforce" the riding agreement release. It entered judgment for the defendants.


I. The Release
Gorlin contends the court erred 1) by admitting parol evidence to determine the intention of the parties and 2) by not finding that the boarding agreement superseded the riding agreement's release of liability provision. We disagree. If "a writing is fairly susceptible to one or two constructions, extrinsic evidence may be received to ... ascertain the true intent of the parties...." (Sass v. Hank (1951) 108 Cal.App.2d 207, 214 .) The court should hear testimony if the parties dispute the meaning of contractual terms. (Morey v. Vannucci (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 904, 912 .) "Even if a contract appears unambiguous on its face, a latent ambiguity may be exposed by extrinsic evidence...." (Ibid.)
Here the court properly heard testimony to determine if the parties intended to modify the initial release when they signed the boarding agreement. It correctly noted that the two documents were "in conflict," leaving an "ambiguity" about intent. This issue could not be resolved by only reviewing the documents.
Jean and the Jacobsons claim substantial evidence supports the finding that the boarding agreement did not modify the riding agreement's release of liability provision. We again agree. Mr. Jacobson said horse riders on his property must sign the riding agreement whether or not they boarded horses there. Mrs. Jacobson said she reminded Gorlin when she signed the boarding agreement that she had also previously signed the riding agreement. It was their policy to tell horse riders, "[I]f they get hurt ... while they're riding, that they ... won't sue us."
Moreover, the agreements had different purposes. The boarding agreement allowed the Jacobsons to care for Gorlin's horse. The riding agreement specifically related to riding horses on the ranch. The boarding agreement did not supersede the riding agreement's release of liability provision.
II. The Judgment
Gorlin contends the court erred by entering judgment against her. We disagree. Here Gorlin signed a release where she expressly assumed the risk for injuries from horseback riding accidents on the ranch. She was injured while engaging in that activity. The release "operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement...." (Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn. (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1007, 1013 .)
Parties may utilize releases to limit liability for those providing recreational facilities and activities. (Lund v. Bally's Aerobic Plus, Inc. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 733, 739.) "In personal injury cases arising from sporting activities, a defendant cannot be charged with a duty to protect the plaintiff from risks inherent in the sport. Those risks are borne by the plaintiff...." (Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 582.)
An expected risk for those taking horseback riding lessons is that they may fall from the horse. (Harrold v. Rolling J Ranch (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 578, 587.) "A horse can stumble or rear or suddenly break into a gallop, any of which may throw the rider." (Ibid.) Gorlin was not an experienced rider. Even professional jockeys fall from horses.
Gorlin contends that Jean should not have been in the riding area and her conduct frightened and confused the horse. But horses may be frightened by a variety of events. They may bolt and throw riders when they are afraid or confused by the appearance of trains. (Parsons v. Crown Disposal Co. (1997) 15 Cal.4th 456, 471.) They may be frightened by loud noises from garbage trucks. (Id. at p. 460.) But horseback riders injured by falls may not sue sanitation companies because horses react badly to loud noises. (Id. at p. 485.)
The prospect that Gorlin's horse might encounter an animal or a person that would influence its behavior was something any rider could reasonably anticipate. It was a risk Gorlin agreed to accept in order to be able to ride horses on the ranch. Jean's conduct does not change the result. Even if Jean's actions were ill advised, Gorlin's theory of liability is not based on the claim that Jean deliberately tried to harm her. (Parsons v. Crown DisposalCo., supra, 15 Cal.4th at p. 481.) Gorlin was under McGraw's supervision. Neither Jean nor the Jacobsons selected the area, conditions or time when the riding lesson would take place. The events leading to Gorlin's fall were within the risks covered by the release. Gorlin has not shown error.
We have reviewed the parties' remaining contentions. They would not change the result.
The judgment is affirmed. Costs to defendants.

We concur: YEGAN and PERREN, JJ.


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