Following the decision in Harris v Miller, horse owners will have to assess whether a rider is a ‘good match’ for their horse before letting them ride it, to avoid being found negligent and potentially ordered to pay out significant sums in compensation.

Facts

On 15 December 2012, Mrs Rachel Miller, who had recently started horse riding as a hobby, bought Polly Perks, a thoroughbred that was bred to race. Fourteen-year-old Ashleigh Harris, Mrs Miller’s son’s girlfriend at the time, was present during the purchase and briefly rode Polly on that day. Ashleigh Harris had owned her own pony but had never ridden a horse before. On 22 December 2012, during a family picnic with the Millers, Ashleigh Harris had a fall while riding Polly and suffered a serious vertebral fracture, which resulted in paraplegia.

Decision

At trial, the factual evidence of the witnesses for the Claimant and the Defendant differed. In particular, there was a disagreement about what happened on 22 December 2012, Polly’s characteristics and Ashleigh Harris’ horse riding experience (amongst other things). The liability question therefore turned substantially on which factual account the judge preferred.

In handing down his judgement on 4 November 2016, Judge Graham Wood QC accepted Ashleigh Harris’ account of events and said that he found Mrs Miller’s account “implausible” and found her an “unreliable witness”. The judge was critical of Mrs Miller’s failure to ascertain what Ashleigh Harris’ experience was by asking her if she had ever ridden a horse, as opposed to a pony. With respect to the horse, the judge accepted the Claimant’s expert evidence that Polly was a green, unresponsive and uneducated horse who by her very nature, as a thoroughbred racehorse, would be strong, potentially wilful, and difficult to control.”

When looking at the law, Judge Graham Wood QC stated that in order to find negligence, it was necessary to focus on the Defendant’s actual or constructive knowledge of both the horse and the rider. He went on to say that the Defendant’s standard of care was that of the “ordinary and reasonably prudent horse owner” and that such a person would ensure that they had enough information about both the horse and the rider in order to assess whether there was any risk in that rider riding that particular horse.

In applying this test, the judge found that Mrs Miller had “made a serious error of judgement” in buying an “unsuitable horse at the early stages of her riding hobby”, that she “had undertaken insufficient enquiry” about Ashleigh Harris’ experience and had positively encouraged her to ride the horse, exposing her to a risk of injury. Judge Graham Wood QC ruled that it was not necessary to foresee serious injury, and that it was enough to see that it was reasonably foreseeable that some sort of injury could be caused. It was therefore not necessary for Ashleigh Harris to prove that it was reasonably foreseeable that she could suffer paraplegic injuries.

Damages were not determined and will be assessed at a later date. Given Ashleigh Harris’ young age at the time of the accident and the huge impact that paraplegia has had and will have on her life, Mrs Miller is likely to be ordered to pay out several millions of pounds in compensation.

Commentary

Horse riding, like motorcycling, playing rugby and extreme sports, is an inherently risky activity. Some horses are large and some are just unpredictable. However, many people in the UK still enjoy the adrenaline rush and excitement of riding a horse as a hobby or professionally.

Studies show that spinal injuries caused by horse riding accidents are most likely to occur as a result of a fall, and they are more likely to be lumbar and thoracic injuries, rather than cervical injuries.

What is a spinal cord injury?

The spinal cord is formed of nerves which connects the brain with the body. It is located in the spinal canal which rests inside the vertebral column. Damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal (the cauda equina) can cause permanent change in sensation, movement and other body function below the site of the injury. The symptoms and prognosis of those affected by a spinal cord injury can vary widely depending on the location of the injury in the cord.

Types of spinal cord injuries

There are two main terms used to describe medical conditions that relate to individuals who have sustained spinal cord injuries:

  • Paraplegia: this refers to damage in the thoracic spine. Sensation and function in the lower half of the body, including legs and some stomach muscles are affected.
  • Tetraplegia: can occur subsequent to damage in the neck (cervical spinal cord). Movements and sensation is lost in arms, legs, and some stomach and chest muscles. There may be varying degrees of paralysis with little or no ability to move below the site of the injury.

Although spinal cord injuries caused by horse riding are numerically few, as the case of Harris v Miller shows, they can have catastrophic, life-changing consequences for not only the riders, but also the horse owners.

What lesson can horse lovers learn?

  • Before lending their horse to another rider, horse owners should make sufficient enquiries about the horse’s nature (if it is newly purchased) and the rider’s experience in order to ensure that the horse’s characteristics and attitude match the rider’s experience and competence.
  • Horse owners should carefully choose their horse insurance to ensure that it covers personal accidents (Personal Accidents Insurance), as well as legal costs and compensation if they are found liable for damage or injury or death as a result of an incident involving their horse (Third Party Liability Insurance).
  • In the case of Harris v Miller, Mrs Miller’s insurance indemnity was insufficient to meet the full value of the claim and could have huge financial consequences for her and her family. It is therefore vital for horse owners to ensure that not only do they get the right insurance package but also the right level of cover.
  • Horse riders would also benefit from taking out their own Rider Insurance to ensure that they are adequately covered in the event of an injury while riding another person’s horse.