Poorly written release in Massachusetts stop lawsuit for falling off a horse during riding lessons.

Release used poor language and was hidden within an application to learn to ride.

Markovitz v. Cassenti, 56 N.E.3d 894, 90 Mass.App.Ct. 1102 (2016)

State: Massachusetts , Appeals Court of Massachusetts

Plaintiff: Joanne Markovitz

Defendant: Christine Cassenti

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2016

Summary

A release stopped a negligence claim for falling off a horse in Massachusetts. The plaintiff had been riding with the stable for more than a year and had been riding this horse for over a month when she fell off. She argued the Massachusetts Equine Liability Act allowed her to sue. The court said not, the release stopped her lawsuit and her arguments about the Massachusetts Equine Liability Act were incorrect.

Facts

On July 16, 2009, the plaintiff filled out and signed an application for riding lessons at Chrislar Farm. In that application, she wrote that she had six months of riding experience in 2001 and that she wanted to continue to learn to ride. The form contained a section entitled ” RELEASE,” which stated: ” I, the Club member/Student (or parent or guardian) recognize the inherent risks of injury involved in horseback riding/driving and being around horses generally, and in learning to ride/drive in particular. In taking lessons at CHRISLAR FARM or participating in Club activities, I assume any and all such risk of injury and further, I voluntarily release CHRISLAR FARM, its owners, instructors, employees and agents from any and all responsibility on account of any injury I (or my child or ward) may sustain for any reason while on the premises of CHRISLAR FARM or participating in Club activities, and I agree to indemnify and hold harmless CHRISLAR FARM, its owners, instructors, employees and agents on account of any such claim.”

The plaintiff signed the form on the signature line immediately below the release.

Between July of 2009 and September of 2010, the plaintiff took thirty-minute private riding lessons on a regular basis. Between September, 2010, and January, 2011, the plaintiff took one-hour group riding lessons and walked, trotted, and cantered several different horses. On September 3, 2010, the defendants leased a horse named Jolee. Christine Cassenti had known this horse for a long time. The trainer conducting the lessons thought that the horse was ” sweet and did everything you asked her to do.”

The plaintiff first rode Jolee during a ” musical horses” exercise. She then rode Jolee during the next three one-hour group lessons on December 23, 2010, December 30, 2010, and January 6, 2011. At one point during the December 23, 2010, lesson, Jolee went from a trot into a canter and stayed in a circle formation instead of performing a figure eight. Following the instructions from the trainer, the plaintiff slowed down and stopped Jolee. The plaintiff rode Jolee without incident on December 30, 2010, and January 6, 2011.

On January 20, 2011, a year and one-half after the plaintiff began taking lessons at Chrislar Farm, the plaintiff rode Jolee for the fourth time. She noticed that Jolee briefly pinned her ears. After finishing a walk, the plaintiff began trotting Jolee. At one point, Jolee sped up into a faster trot and turned left, causing the plaintiff to lose her balance and fall.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The argument the plaintiff attempted to make was the Massachusetts Equine Liability Act created a duty on the part of the defendants that was not protected by the release. The act listed risks which a rider of a horse accepted. The statute had an exception to that list

“Nothing in subsection (b) shall prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or any other person if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or person: ” (1) . . . (ii) provided the equine and failed to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant . . . to safely manage the particular equine based on the participant’s representations of his ability.”

The plaintiff argued this created a new duty which the defendant in this case breached.

However the court found the section did not create a new duty, it only allowed a plaintiff to proceed with a negligence claim in certain exceptional situations. Because the release barred negligence claims the plaintiff’s lawsuit was properly dismissed by the courts.

So Now What?

The odd thing about this case is there was no gross negligence claim to get around the release.

However, the were some risks run by the plaintiff that in other states might have caused problems. They were obvious issues by this court because the court raised them in the facts.

  • The form Application for Riding Lessons also contained the release, hidden in the form.
  • The language in the release was weak and did not contain the word negligence.

But for solid law in Massachusetts supporting releases this case in other states would have gone differently.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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