“How Are the New Equine Activity Laws Working?”

Kenneth C. Sandoe, Attorney-at-Law

published in The Draft Horse Journal, Winter, 2002 - 03

“The known certainty of the law is the safety of us all.” Engraved saying outside Courtroom No. 1, Lebanon County Courthouse, Lebanon, PA.

I spent many anxious hours sitting on the hard wooden bench outside Courtroom No. 1 of the Lebanon County Courthouse waiting for a verdict. As I sat, I contemplated the engraved quote on the wall, “The known certainty of the law is the safety of us all.” How ironic, there was no “known certainty” only the hope that the Judge or twelve jurors saw the case my way. As I began to read Court decisions interpreting the new equine activity laws, I began to have the same feeling as I have waiting for a verdict. “Known certainty” simply does not exist, the Court decisions are diverse, and some, just plain wrong. I have reviewed over 50 cases interpreting the new laws across the country and will review a few of the more notable cases in this article.

I have previously written about the new equine activity laws in the Autumn 1999 and Spring 2000 issues of The Draft Horse Journal. These articles discussed the new laws, which are designed to protect the horse owner and handler from inherent risks of horse activity and discourage frivolous lawsuits for personal injury. Currently, 44 states have passed these protective laws (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Wyoming). That leaves 6 states which still have not passed equine protection laws. (Alaska, California, Maryland, Nevada, New York and Pennsylvania). The reason these 6 states have yet to pass equine activity laws relates to politics, trial lawyers, the insurance industry and the makeup of the State House of Representatives and Senate. I will comment no further or run the risk of being really “politically incorrect!”

Our analysis begins with the case of Friedli v. Kerr, decided by the Tennessee Court of Appeals on February 23, 2001. In this case the Tennessee Court of Appeals found that a carriage service was not protected by the Tennessee Equine Activity Statute.

On the evening of December 13, 1996, Mr. and Mrs. Friedli were celebrating their wedding anniversary with two friends at the Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville, Tennessee. After a period of celebration the Friedlis and their friends decided to take a horse-drawn carriage tour of downtown Nashville. They chose a carriage owned and operated by the Nashville Carriage Service, owned by Henry Kerr, with one Christopher Edwards on the lines and a horse by the name of Talon in the shafts.

The passengers boarded the carriage at the Hard Rock Cafe and as the ride began a large crack echoed in the night frightening Talon. Talon took off, breaking his single tree and galloped down the road pulling the carriage while still attached by the corner straps. The noise of the shafts driving along the road panicked the horse and after a brief breathtaking ride the carriage overturned spilling its occupants all over the road. Talon broke free from the carriage and continued along his route.

The Friedlis and their friends sued Mr. Kerr, the Nashville Carriage Service and Christopher Edwards. The Plaintiffs argued that the carriage service was a common carrier or amusement ride and pursuant to Tennessee law, they were owed a “heightened duty of care.” The Defendants responded that they were immune from any lawsuit as they were protected under the Tennessee Equine Liability Statute which protected an owner or handler from “inherent risks of equine activity.”

After a twisted and strained analysis of the law the Tennessee Court of Appeals concluded that one, Mr. Kerr was not “an equine activity sponsor.” Two, Mr. Kerr’s business is not an “equine activity.” And three, that the Plaintiffs were not “participants” engaged in an equine activity when they were injured. Talk about confusing, how can a carriage business be found not to be an equine activity? How can the Plaintiffs be found not to participate in an “equine activity” when they hired the Defendant to ride in the carriage? Let’s hope this decision is an aberration and will not be followed by more enlightened courts. However, in what appears to be an attempt to right the wrong, the Court held that the carriage service was not a common carrier and therefore no heightened degree of care was owed and applied general negligence principals. This case was clearly designed to be protected by the equine activity law. The result is inconsistent and inappropriate.

The second case to be reviewed is out of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and is entitled “Easterling v. English Point Riding Stables.” In this case the Plaintiff suffered injuries when she fell from a horse during a horseback riding lesson. Suit was filed and the Defendant filed a Motion to dismiss the lawsuit due to the protections afforded by the Louisiana Equine Activity Statute. The Plaintiff responded that the Statute was of no protection since the Statute had specifically enumerated exceptions concerning faulty tack and poor judgment by the instructor concerning the ability of the participant to engage safely in the activity, knowing that the horse in question was too much for an inexperienced rider.

The facts of the case determined that there were issues concerning the ability of the Plaintiff rider to handle the horse in question and further that the martingale broke during the incident and therefore was a faulty piece of tack which may have caused or contributed to the Plaintiff’s injuries. Based on these facts the Court did not dismiss the lawsuit and held that a valid cause of action could exist if the Plaintiff could prove the claims made.

I agree with the conclusion of the Court in this case. If in fact the instructor put an inexperienced rider with a hard to handle horse and, also knew or should have known of faulty tack, then liability could be established on behalf of the horse owner.

The next case to be reviewed is Snider v. Fort Madison Rodeo Corporation decided by the Iowa Court of Appeals on February 20, 2002. The Plaintiff, Elisabeth Snider, was injured while she was attempting to cross the street, carrying a lawn chair, during a break in a parade she was observing. As she was crossing the street, a pony bolted with its two riders, an 8 year old and a 4 year old and knocked Elisabeth over.

Elisabeth and her husband sued the owner of the pony and the Fort Madison Rodeo Corporation doing business as Tri-State Rodeo, the sponsor of the parade. The Sniders claimed, among other things, the Defendants were negligent in allowing the children to ride the pony without a lead rope held by an adult. The Fort Madison Rodeo Corporation asked the Court to dismiss the lawsuit based on the protections provided by the Iowa Equine Activity Law. Iowa’s Equine Activity Law protects a “domesticated animal event” which was held to encompass a parade and further determined that none of the exceptions to the law applied in this case. In particular, Iowa’s law excepts from protection a defendant who is reckless or uses faulty or defective equipment. The trial court found that the lack of a lead rope by an adult did not rise to the level of reckless conduct and did not constitute use of “faulty or defective equipment.” As a result, the case was dismissed.

Query! Is leaving an 8 year old and a 4 year old with no adult supervision riding a pony during a parade a wise decision? There certainly can be arguments advanced for faulty judgment.

The final case to be reviewed in this article is the case of Amburgey v. Sauder decided by the Michigan Court of Appeals on October 19, 1999. The Plaintiff was invited by her son’s girlfriend to watch the girlfriend’s riding lesson at the Defendant’s stable where the horse was boarded. Plaintiff entered the stable and was given a tour of the facilities by her son’s girlfriend. Plaintiff watched the riding lesson which lasted approximately one hour, then accompanied her son’s girlfriend back into the stable at which time Plaintiff fed the horse an apple and briefly assisted in grooming the horse. After Plaintiff was finished she walked down the center aisle of the stable to leave when she passed a horse stall and the horse unexpectedly lunged over his closed stall door and bit the Plaintiff in the right arm. As Plaintiff tried to break free from the grasp, the horse let go causing the Plaintiff to impact into the adjacent wall and injure her shoulder.

The Plaintiff claimed she was not a participant as defined by Michigan Law and was a mere spectator and, therefore, could sue for her injuries. The stable responded that it was protected by the Michigan Equine Activity Law since the Plaintiff was a participant as defined by Statute. The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court in concluding that the Plaintiff was “engaged in an equine activity” and therefore a “participant” under Michigan’s law. Plaintiff’s undisputed involvement in touring the facilities and assisting her son’s girlfriend in caring for the horse following an organized event or activity rendered Plaintiff a participant in “equine activity” pursuant to the express language of the Michigan Law. As a result, the case was dismissed.

As can be seen, the decisions leave questions about interpretation of definitions and application of the facts of a given case to those definitions. I will continue to monitor the latest cases as they are released and provide updated reports from time to time.

Enough legal talk–it’s time to hitch horses.

Ken is a practicing attorney in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, where a good bit of his practice involves negligence cases. Ken and his wife, Karen, own Sunny Hill Farm Belgians, and they have been exhibiting their six horse hitch for the past few years at most major shows in the east.

 


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