Spooking Horse Was an “Inherent Risk” and No “Willful or Wanton” Conduct Found

As of Aug. 1, 2015, 47 states – all but California, Maryland, and New York – have passed some form of an Equine Activity Liability Act ("EALA"). These laws sometimes share common characteristics, but all of them differ. Most follow a pattern that prevents an “equine activity sponsor,” “equine professional,” or possibly others from being sued if a “participant” who “engages in an equine activity” suffers injury, death or damage from an “inherent risk.” The laws typically include a list of exceptions.

Does a horse bucking in reaction to a lawn mower qualify as an “inherent risk” for which the EALA might protect a horse owner from liability?

In March 2015, a Georgia trial court answered “yes” and dismissed a personal injury lawsuit. The case involved a rider with 20 years of experience who was riding the defendant’s horse at an equestrian center. During the ride, however, the defendant started a small riding lawn mower near the arena, giving no warning. Allegedly in response, the horse began bucking and kicking, causing the plaintiff to be thrown. She was injured and sued. Her lawsuit essentially blamed the defendant horse owner for starting the mower near the arena.

INHERENT RISK

In defense, the horse owner invoked Georgia’s EALA and argued that the case should be dismissed. Georgia’s law states, in part, that an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, ... or any other person, ... shall not be liable for an injury to or the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities ... and, ... no participant or participant's representative shall make any claim against, maintain an action against, or recover from an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, ... or any other person for injury, loss, damage, or death of the participant resulting from any of the inherent risks of equine activities ....

Georgia’s EALA defined “inherent risks of equine activities” to include “the propensity of the animal to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around them” and “the unpredictability of the animal's reaction to such things as sounds, sudden movement, and unfamiliar objects, persons, or other animals.” Comparing this law to the facts, the Court found that the risk of a horse spooking from a mower was an “inherent risk” and, accordingly, the defendant was entitled to immunity.

NO ‘WILLFUL OR WANTON DISREGARD’ FOR THE RIDER’S SAFETY

The plaintiff next argued that her case should still be maintained under an exception in Georgia’s EALA when a defendant engaged in “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant.” Disagreeing, the Court found that the facts did not measure up to the extreme degree of wrongdoing needed to support that type of liability. The Court explained that dismissal was appropriate because “[e]ven if [the case] presented an issue of negligence or even gross negligence, it has been repeatedly affirmed that this could not meet the ‘willful or wanton’ standard.”  The Court dismissed the case.

ASSUMPTION OF RISK

Finally, the Court noted that Georgia’s doctrine of assumption of risk also supported dismissal of the injured rider’s lawsuit because she “had actual knowledge of the danger, understood and appreciated the risk of riding a horse, and voluntarily exposed herself to such risk.”

The case was: Morris v. Stephenson, Cobb County, Georgia, Civil Action No.: 13-A-2720-3. (Trial Court Ruling 3/27/2015).