The Equine Activities Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -12 (“Equine Act”), provides operators of equine facilities with a complete defense to claims from injuries that result from risks assumed by the participant. Under the Equine Act, assumed risks include, among other things, the propensity of an equine animal to behave in ways that result in injury to a rider and the unpredictability of an equine animal’s reaction to objects, sounds, and movements. The Equine Act contains exceptions to an operator’s protection from suits; specifically, an operator can be held liable for “[a]n act or omission … that constitutes negligent disregard for the participant’s safety, which act or omission causes the injury.” In Klyashtorny v. Black Brook Stables, LLC, No. A-1334-10 (App. Div. July 13, 2011), the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to defendant Black Brook Stables, LLC, an operator of an equestrian facility, pursuant to the Equine Act.
The defendant operated a facility that offered riding lessons. The plaintiff was rated as a “beginner” and started taking “beginner” riding lessons. During his third lesson he was thrown from his horse and sustained severe injuries. The plaintiff stated that after he walked the horse, he put the horse into a trot. As the horse approached an outside fence, it bolted and the plaintiff was thrown off. The plaintiff did not know why the horse threw him, but he thought a tractor that was operating on the other side of the fence may have caused the horse to bolt.
During discovery, the plaintiff produced an expert report that was jointly authored by a recreational hazard expert and an equestrian expert. They opined that the defendant negligently disregarded the plaintiff’s safety by not properly evaluating his riding ability; by not instructing the plaintiff on what to do in situations where the horse was spooked; and allowing the riding lesson to occur near the tractor. The experts also opined that the defendant violated the Equine Act. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant, finding that the Equine Act barred the plaintiff’s claim and that the exceptions to the immunity provided by the Act did not apply.
The Appellate Division explained that the accident was the result of a risk designated as a risk assumed by the plaintiff in the Equine Act. After reviewing the Equine Act’s provisions, the court recounted that in Hubner v. Spring Valley Equestrian Ctr., 203 N.J. 184, 206 (2010), the Supreme Court had recently stressed that a plaintiff could not establish an operator’s liability under the Equine Act by “characteriz[ing] an injury caused by one of the expressly defined assumed risks in language designed to make it appear that in some fashion the injury arose through an act or omission of the operator.” The Appellate Division pointed out that through his experts’ opinions, that was exactly what the plaintiff was trying to do. Moreover, citing to Hubner, the Appellate Division noted that the Equine Act’s exceptions must not be read expansively. Therefore, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendant.