Was Stable Operator Liable for Injury?
Maritza Donohue sued Netherwood Acres, LLC for negligence arising out of a horseback riding incident. The complaint alleged that Donohue was riding on a trail ride, when she was “caused to be thrown from the horse and fall to the ground by reason of the negligence of [Netherwood] thereby sustaining severe and serious personal injuries.”
Donohue alleged that Netherwood failed to properly train the horse, provide her with the appropriate saddle, or properly match a horse with its rider. She alleged that she expressed warnings to Netherwood’s employees about the horse’s actions, and claimed that she was negligently allowed to mount the horse “despite prior notice of the dangerous and ‘misbehaving’ nature of the horse.”
Netherwood sought an order dismissing Donohue’s complaint and declaring that Kristen Smith was not personally responsible for any judgment that might be entered against Netherwood.
Donohue was engaged in a “trail ride” on a horse, while being supervised by Netherwood’s agents and/or employees. Donohue executed a document prior to riding the horse entitled, “Netherwood Acres, LLC RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY.” The release stated initially that Donohue was “aware and acknowledging that riding…. are [sic] inherently dangerous, hazardous and unpredictable activities.” The release further stated in bold, larger type that:
I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL THE RISK OF LOSS, DAMAGE, PERSONAL INJURY OR DEATH THAT I OR MY PROPERTY MAY SUSTAIN IN CONNECTION WITH ANY EQUESTRIAN ACTIVITIES.
But the waiver signed by Donohue was not the focus of the Court.
The examination before trial revealed much relevant information about Donohue and the incident. She took medication for migraines, sometimes saw double, researched the type of saddle after the incident, had been wearing “glasses” since she was 5, claimed she thought she was not secure in the saddle, and claimed the “horse had already ran, took off.” Donohue withdrew her claim that the horse was “vicious” and claimed the horse got spooked by an oil slick.
In her deposition Kristen Smith testified that she helped adjust Donohue’s stirrups, discussed the horse “Pearl,” described Pearl and his temperament, and confirmed with the people assigned to lead the trail ride that Donahue had not complained at all during the ride.
Jenny Adrion, the leader of the trail ride, testified about Pearl’s temperament.
Considering Donohue’s allegations in the light most favorable to her, the Court found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that she had faced and dealt with issues that constituted any enhanced risk, while participating in the trail ride.
The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides that by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation.
The risks of falling from a horse or a horse acting in an unintended manner are risks inherent in the sport of horseback riding. One who participates in the recreational activity of horseback riding assumes the risk of a sudden action by the horse, including being thrown from the horse. Even assuming that Donahue was “thrown from the horse,” the Court found that she still should be found to have assumed the risk, such as falling, when she participated in the trail ride. A participant does not assume the risk for unreasonable increased risks. However, that was not the situation in the matter before the Court. There was no “increased risk,” and certainly not one that was caused by any actions by Netherwood, that would bar the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.
That one could fall from a horse or that a horse could act up in an unintended matter, say by being “spooked,” were risks taken in the sport of horseback riding.
Donohue further contended that she advised the guides that she felt uncomfortable in the saddle, and that “…the horse had already ran…off.” Despite her prior allegations, she withdrew her claim that the horse, Pearl, was “vicious.” The guides who rode with Donohue that day both confirmed that Pearl was gentle, and was specifically used with beginner trail rides because of his temperament. When asked about Pearl, Kristen Smith testified that Pearl was “small,” was purchased for the specific purpose of trail rides, and “he was an Irish draft horse. He was a laid back guy.” The trail ride itself was described as uneventful, even taking into account the Donohue’s allegations that she was uncomfortable, she allegedly felt like she was slipping, and her claim that the horse was spooked by an oil slick. Those statements did not invalidate the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.
Considering the allegations in the light most favorable to her, the Court found there was insufficient evidence that Donohue faced any uncommon difficulties on the trail ride, other than the ordinary risks inherent in horseback riding. For the doctrine of primary assumption of risk to fail, it must have been shown that Netherwood had a special duty of care because of some other information known to Netherwood and withheld from her. That might include that Netherwood knew that Pearl, had the propensity to throw riders; or that, through its employees or agents on the scene, Netherwood failed to properly assist Donohue. But her testimony that she complained to the guides and felt uncomfortable were self-serving statements that did not prevent the doctrine of primary assumption of risk to apply, and for Donahue’s complaint to be dismissed.
But there was no heightened risk here. Netherwood did not “hide” anything from Donohue. There were no dramatic inclines or increasingly rocky trails that Donohue had to confront. The horse was not vicious and had no propensities to “throw” a rider. Pearl was a “laid back guy.” Netherwood’s agents did not fail to perform their tasks. Consequently, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applied.
Donahue’s complaint against Netherwood was dismissed.