Every riding instructor's worst nightmare is a serious injury to a student during a lesson. Riding instructors feel a moral obligation to assure the safety of their students. But, moral obligations aside, what are the legal liabilities of a riding instructor when his or her student is injured during a lesson?
Under what circumstances is a riding instructor liable for an injury to a student during a lesson? Is the duty of a riding instructor to protect his or her student from injury different from the duty of a participant in a mutual equine activity, such as a trail ride or horse show, not to injure co-participants? Is the instructor's legal liability affected by the enactment of an Equine Activity Statute by the legislature of the state where the accident occurred? Does an instructor have a continuing duty to evaluate the safety of a lesson and to terminate the lesson if unsafe conditions arise? How important is the prior equestrian training and experience of the injured student to fixing legal responsibility for an accident during a lesson?
Duty of an Instructor to Provide a Safe Lesson. No instructor under even the best of circumstances can absolutely guarantee the safety of his or her student during a lesson. There are factors beyond the control of the instructor, such as unforeseeable behaviors by the student or horse or unexpected environmental hazards, that may result in an injury to the student that the instructor was powerless to prevent.
However, an instructor is an instructor because he or she knows more about the subject being taught than the student taking the lesson. That knowledge difference may create a legal duty in the instructor that would not otherwise exist. When one adds to that mix the fact that in most instances the instructor is a professional who holds himself or herself out as an expert and who is being paid by an amateur or parent in an effort to improve the skills of the student, the logic of a legal duty on the part of the instructor to assure a reasonably safe lesson is evident.
Some courts have recognized that the instructor-student relationship creates a legal duty in the instructor that may in some circumstances lead to legal liability for a lesson injury. Ms Galardi in Galardi v. Seahorse Riding Club, 16 Cal.App.4th 817, 20 Cal.Rptr.2d 270 (Cal.App. 1993) was injured during a jumping lesson. She was an experienced equestrienne. She rode a Thoroughbred horse and had appeared for several years in horse shows involving performance jumps and obstacles of various types. She had on many occasions ridden horses that had either balked at a jump or missed a stride when taking a jump, and had observed more than 50 horse-related injuries. The California Court of Appeals concluded that she understood that jumping a horse creates a greater risk of injury to the rider than does riding on the flat. The Court of Appeals described the accident:
"Plaintiff was practicing a one-stride jump combination. The combination consists of two individual jumps set up so that the horse takes a stride between each jump. During the practice, defendant Lisa Jacquin, an instructor at the riding club, twice raised the height of the jumps without lengthening the distance between each obstacle. Plaintiff was aware of Jacquin's actions. Jacquin then asked plaintiff to ride through the course in reverse direction.
"According to plaintiff's deposition testimony, she recognized the following prior to the jump: It was twice that [the jumps] had been raised but not lengthened and then [defendant Jacquin] asked me to come through it the other way. That's when I was concerned because I knew that the fences had been raised and that the distance had not been lengthened and that we were also going through it backwards for the first time.
"When plaintiff attempted the maneuver, her horse successfully jumped the first obstacle. However, the horse landed too close to the second jump, was unable to take a stride and consequently popped up into the air, knocking down the second jump and causing plaintiff to lose her balance and fall. She sustained injuries to her coccyx and two vertebrae. "
The Court of appeals discussed the risks inherent in show jumping and contrasted them to the circumstances under which this accident occurred:
"Clearly, the sport of horse jumping has the inherent risk that both horse and rider will fall and suffer injury. The basic competitive character of the sport involves engaging increasingly higher jumps and at shorter intervals until at some point the competitors can no longer clear the obstacles without substantial contact. Collisions with the jumps and ensuing falls are thus an integral part of the sport. Riders may also fall from the horse as the result of other conditions such as a balking or stumbling mount. Such risks were clearly among those which plaintiff here knowingly encountered during her training, when the jumps were raised, intervals became more hazardous, and directions were reversed.
"However, the occasion of plaintiff's fall and injury was not during competition with other riders. Instead, she had placed her training in the hands of defendants, who were employed to instruct and coach her. Their responsibilities were directly to plaintiff. While other riders, as coparticipants, would not have any special duty of care to plaintiff during competition to insure she did not fall, defendants certainly had a duty to avoid an unreasonable risk of injury to plaintiff and to take care that the jumping array was not beyond the capability of horse and rider. Of course, the risk of injury, inherent in plaintiff's activity, cannot be eliminated and in fact creates the challenge which defines the sport. The complaint and evidence presented in the trial court created a question of fact concerning whether defendants, who, we may infer, had knowledge and experience concerning the sport of horse jumping superior to that of plaintiff, negligently deployed the jumps at unsafe heights or intervals and thereby breached the duty owed to plaintiff. "
(Emphasis added.) The court is not saying that the instructor was negligent for raising the jumps without lengthening the distance between them. Rather, the court is saying that the instructor may have been negligent in conducting the lesson. If negligence is shown at trial, then the instructor and her employer would be held legally responsible for the injuries because the instructor owes the student a duty to make the lesson reasonably safe.
Does An Equine Activity Statute Protect the Instructor? Is the liability picture changed by an Equine Activity Statute. California has not enacted an Equine Activity Statute, but forty-four states have. Those statutes are designed to immunize equine providers and professionals from liability for injuries that are the result of inherent risks of equine activities. How do riding lessons fit into this scheme?
Most Equine Activity Statutes provide an exception to protection if the equine professional "failed to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity and to safely manage the particular equine based on the participants representations of his ability." Some statutes recognize that exception only if the professional supplied the horse, while others do not have that restriction.
In Easterling v. English Point Riding Stables, 1994 WL 99543 (E.D. La. 1994), the trial court refused to grant summary judgment for the defendant riding stables in a lawsuit for an accident that occurred while plaintiff was being taught to trot the defendants horse while on a lunge line. There was evidence it was possible another rider in the arena hit a jump and made a noise that startled the horse plaintiff was riding. The trial court concluded that the instructor might have been negligent in conducting the lesson in close proximity to where other horses were working when there was a safer area they could have moved to and should not have started to trot the horse on a lunge line under questionable control with a very apprehensive rider, when the instructor could have kept the horse under her immediate control with a short lead line. The trial court said that the statute did not protect the instructor if she failed to safely manage the horse based on the students abilities.
Willeck v. Mrotek, 2000 WL 463545 (Wis.App. 2000) arose out of an accident that occurred on a guided trail ride. The Wisconsin statute, like the one in Louisiana, contained the exception quoted above about making efforts to assure a safe lesson environment. Plaintiff Willeck was injured when the horse he was riding spooked on a trail ride conducted by defendant Mrotek, as a result of defendant Froemings dog barking at the horses. The Court of Appeals said the Wisconsin Equine Activity Statute did not protect the trail ride providers because they made no "effort to determine the ability of the person to engage safely in an equine activity." The trail ride providers argued that it was the responsibility of the customer voluntarily to disclose his or her level of ability, but the Court of Appeals rejected that argument and concluded that under the statute there was a duty on the trail ride operators to inquire about the riding ability of all customers and to act accordingly in selecting a safe horse and riding environment.
In Summary. Instructors do have a duty to provide a reasonably safe lesson environment for students. If they fail to do so and a student is injured, then the instructor and his or her employer can be held legally liable for the injury. Equine Activity Statutes do not protect the instructor in this circumstance, at least if the horse is provided by the instructor or the instructors employer, so that the instructor has control over which horse is ridden. Finally, an instructor has a legal duty to determine the experience and ability of a student and to take that into account in selecting a safe mount and structuring a safe lesson.
Next Time. When does an instructor have a legal duty to terminate a lesson because of unsafe circumstances and how does the experience of the student change the instructors legal liability?
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