Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330

Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330

Jessica Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al.

SC 17506

SUPREME COURT OF CONNECTICUT

280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330

May 16, 2006, Argued

October 3, 2006, Officially Released

COUNSEL: Jeffrey I. Carton, with whom, on the brief, was Robert J. Levine, for the appellant (plaintiff).

John C. Turner, Jr., for the appellees (defendants).

JUDGES: Borden, Norcott, Katz, Vertefeuille and Zarella, Js. In this opinion KATZ, VERTEFEUILLE and ZARELLA, Js., concurred. NORCOTT, J., concurring.

OPINION BY: BORDEN

OPINION

[*154] [**1157] BORDEN, J. The dispositive issue in this appeal is whether a release signed by the plaintiff, Jessica Reardon, indemnifying the defendants, Windswept Farm, LLC, and its owners, William Raymond and Mona Raymond, from an action brought in negligence, precludes the plaintiff from recovering damages. More specifically, the question before this court is whether the release signed by the plaintiff violates public policy pursuant to our holding in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005). [***2] The plaintiff appeals 1 from the judgment of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff claims that: (1) the trial court incorrectly concluded that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous; and (2) in light of this court’s holding in Hanks, the release violates public policy. 2 [*155] We conclude that our holding in Hanks controls the present case and, therefore, that the release signed by the plaintiff was invalid. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.

1 The plaintiff appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court. We then transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) and Practice Book § 65-1.

2 Briefly stated, in Hanks this court dealt with an issue left unresolved by our holding in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 643, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), wherein we did not have the opportunity to pass upon the question of whether the enforcement of a well drafted agreement that purports to release a party from liability for its prospective negligence is contrary to public policy. In particular, in Hanks we concluded that an otherwise well drafted, clear and unambiguous exculpatory agreement, purporting to release a defendant from its prospective liability for ordinary negligence, nonetheless violated public policy and was therefore unenforceable. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 326. That decision was issued during the pendency of the present appeal, which led us to order supplemental briefing by the parties regarding whether the trial court’s judgment should be summarily reversed in light of our decision in Hanks.

[***3] The plaintiff brought this personal injury action against the defendants alleging negligence. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous, and thus satisfied the standard [**1158] that this court set forth in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 643, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), which provided that [HN1] “a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of language that expressly so provides.” The trial court agreed that the plaintiff had signed a well drafted waiver of liability in the defendants’ favor, granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and rendered judgment thereon. This appeal followed.

The following facts are relevant to our analysis of the plaintiff’s claims. The defendants are in the business of providing horseback riding lessons to the general public. In October, 2002, the plaintiff came to the defendants’ property and requested a horseback riding lesson. As a condition to riding one of the defendants’ horses, the plaintiff was required by the defendants to sign a release and indemnity agreement [***4] (release). The release was printed on a single page and consisted of [*156] three sections entitled, “Warning,” 3 “RELEASE,” 4 and “INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” 5 It is undisputed that the plaintiff signed and dated the release prior to commencing her horseback riding lesson with the defendants. Similarly, it is undisputed that the plaintiff identified herself on the release as an “[e]xperienced [r]ider” and as someone who had “[r]idden [horses] frequently” several years earlier.

3 The “Warning” portion of the release provided as follows: “Pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes § 52-577p, [now § 52-557p] a person engaged in recreational activities assumes the risk and responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in the equestrian activities or the failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity by the person provided the horse or horses or his agents or employees.”

[***5]

4 The “RELEASE” portion of the release provided in relevant part: “For, and in consideration of, the privilege to participate in an equine activity at Windswept Farm this date, receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged, the undersigned hereby agrees to release, discharge and acquit WINDSWEPT FARM, its owners, stockholders, officers, directors, employees, agents, and servants from any and all claims, demands, sums of money, actions, rights, causes of action, liabilities and obligations of any kind or nature whatsoever, including ordinary negligence, which I may have had or now have or claim to have had, or hereafter may have, or assert to have, which arise out of, or is in any manner whatsoever directly or indirectly, connected with or related to my participation in the equine activity on this date. . . .” (Emphasis added.)

5 The “INDEMNITY AGREEMENT” portion of the release provided in relevant part: “The undersigned represents and warrants that he/she has read and understood the above-captioned Warning and Release. . . .”

Subsequent to the plaintiff signing the release [***6] provided by the defendants, the defendants paired the plaintiff with one of the horses from their stables and with one of the instructors in their employ. During the course of the plaintiff’s horseback riding lesson, the horse provided by the defendants became excited, bucked back and forth suddenly and without warning, and threw the plaintiff to the ground, causing her serious injuries.

[*157] The plaintiff brought an action in August, 2003, alleging that she had been injured due to the defendants’ negligence. In particular, the plaintiff alleged that her injuries were caused by the “carelessness, recklessness and negligence of the defendants” including, among other things, that (1) the “defendants failed to ensure that the horse on which [she] was placed was an appropriate horse commensurate with [**1159] [the plaintiff’s] skill and experience”; (2) the “defendants failed to prevent, warn or protect the plaintiff from the risk of a fall”; (3) the “defendants knew of the horse’s propensity to buck yet failed to warn [the plaintiff] of the same”; and (4) the “defendants failed properly to hire and train their riding instructor . . . .” In their answer, the defendants raised a special defense, [***7] namely, that “[t]he plaintiff [had] assumed the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to her person per . . . General Statutes [§ ] 52-557p,” 6 and that “[t]he plaintiff’s claims [were] barred [due to the fact] that she signed a waiver/release of all claims in favor of the defendants.”

6 The “Warning” section of the release mirrors General Statutes § 52-557p, which provides: [HN2] “Each person engaged in recreational equestrian activities shall assume the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in recreational equestrian activities or the failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity by the person providing the horse or horses or his agents or employees.”

The plaintiff makes two claims on [***8] appeal. First, the plaintiff claims that the release of all claims “includ[ing] ‘ordinary negligence'” set forth in the release was ambiguous when read together with the “Warning” section printed above it, which, tracking § 52-557p, did not exempt from liability injuries “proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in the equestrian activities . . . .” Second, pursuant to our order for supplemental [*158] briefing, the plaintiff claims that the release is void as a matter of public policy in light of this court’s decision in Hanks v.Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 314. We agree with the plaintiff that our decision in Hanks controls the present case. Accordingly, we need not consider the plaintiff’s claim that the trial court incorrectly concluded that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous. 7

7 Specifically, assuming that the standards identified in Hanks have been satisfied, as we conclude in the present case, it is irrelevant whether the underlying release of liability was clearly and unambiguously drafted and, therefore, was also invalid pursuant to our holding in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 643, which provided that “a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of language that expressly so provides.”

[***9] We begin with the appropriate standard of review. [HN3] “Practice Book § 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. . . . [HN4] The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the party is, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law. . . . The test is whether the party moving for summary judgment would be entitled to a directed verdict on the same facts. . . . [HN5] Our review of the trial court’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is plenary.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Leisure Resort Technology, Inc. v. Trading Cove Associates, 277 Conn. 21, 30-31, 889 A.2d 785 (2006).

[**1160] In light of our holding in Hanks, we cannot conclude that the defendants are entitled to a judgment [***10] in their [*159] favor as a matter of law. Put another way, our reasoning in Hanks requires that we invalidate the release signed by the plaintiff; thus, several genuine issues of material fact surrounding the defendants’ potential negligence remain in dispute.

As previously noted, in Hanks, we concluded that [HN6] the enforcement of a well drafted exculpatory agreement that releases a provider of a recreational activity from prospective liability for personal injuries sustained as a result of the provider’s negligence may violate public policy if certain conditions are met. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 326. In general, we noted that “[t]he law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . . This is because exculpatory provisions undermine the policy considerations governing our tort system . . . [which include] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . .” (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 327. Moreover, we recognized that “it is consistent [***11] with public policy to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor and, if this policy is to be abandoned, it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not to shift the risk to the weak bargainer.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id.

Additionally, when assessing the public policy implications of a particular release or waiver of liability, we concluded that “[n]o definition of the concept of public interest [may] be contained within the four corners of a formula,” and that “[t]he ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 330. Our [*160] analysis in Hanks was also guided, though not limited, by the factors articulated by the Supreme Court of California in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal.2d 92, 98-101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963), 8 which include, among other things, [HN7] a consideration as to whether the release pertains to a business thought suitable for [***12] public regulation, whether the party performing the service holds himself out as making the activity available to any member of the public who seeks it, and whether the provider of the activity exercises superior bargaining power [**1161] and confronts the public with a standard contract of adhesion.

8 The complete list of factors identified by the Supreme Court of California are as follows: “[1] [The agreement] concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.” Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 98-101.

[***13] In the context of snowtubing, which was the recreational activity at issue in Hanks, we placed particular emphasis on: (1) the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; (2) the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and (3) the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and [*161] offered to the plaintiff on a “‘take it or leave it'” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 331-34. Moreover, we recognized the clear public policy in favor of participation in athletics and recreational activities. Id., 335 (“[v]oluntary recreational activities, such as snowtubing, skiing, basketball, soccer, football, racquetball, karate, ice skating, swimming, volleyball or yoga, are pursued by the vast majority of the population and constitute an important and healthy part of everyday life”).

We conclude that, based on our decision in Hanks, the totality of the circumstances surrounding [***14] the recreational activity of horseback riding and instruction that was offered by the defendants demonstrates that the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement in their favor from liability for ordinary negligence violates public policy and is not in the public interest. First, similar to the situation at issue in Hanks, the defendants in the present case provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment for their patrons to engage in a popular recreational activity, and the recreational facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels. Accordingly, there is a reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.

Additionally, in the present case, as in Hanks, the plaintiff “lacked the knowledge, experience [***15] and authority to discern whether, much less ensure that, the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition.” Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant [*162] Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 331. Specifically, although the plaintiff characterized herself as an experienced rider, she was in no greater position then the average rider 9 to assess all the safety issues connected with the defendants’ enterprise. To the contrary, it was the defendants, not the plaintiff or the other customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 331-32. In particular, the defendants acknowledged that they were responsible for providing their patrons with safe horses, qualified instructors, as well as properly maintained working equipment and riding surfaces. [**1162] In the context of carrying out these duties, the defendants were aware, and were in a position continually to gather more information, regarding any [***16] hidden dangers associated with the recreational activity including the temperaments of the individual horses, the strengths of the various riding instructors, and the condition of the facility’s equipment and grounds. As we concluded in Hanks, it is illogical to relieve the defendants, as the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with engaging in horseback riding at their facility, from potential claims of negligence surrounding an alleged failure to administer properly the activity.

9 We also note that we view the release as it applies to all customers, not solely this plaintiff, who happened to have significant riding experience, albeit several years prior to the date of her accident.

Furthermore, the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks. [***17] Specifically, we have noted that [HN8] “[t]he most salient feature [*163] [of adhesion contracts] is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts,” and that they tend to involve a “standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, [usually] a consumer, who has little choice about the terms . . . .” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 333. In the present case, signing the release provided by the defendants was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the horseback riding lesson, there was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not participate in the activity. As in Hanks, therefore, the plaintiff had nearly zero bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position [***18] to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the risk more effectively then the defendants.

We are also mindful that, as evidenced by § 52-557p, recreational horseback riding is a business thought suitable for public regulation, but that the legislature has stopped short of requiring participants to bear the very risk that the defendants now seek to pass on to the plaintiff by way of a mandatory release. In particular, the legislature has prescribed that “[e]ach person engaged in recreational equestrian activities shall assume the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual . . . .” [*164] (Emphasis added.) General Statutes § 52-557p; see footnote 6 of this opinion. This language establishes that the plaintiff assumed the risk for certain injuries when riding at the defendants’ facility due to the nature of horseback riding as an activity, but that an operator of such a facility can still be liable [***19] for injuries caused by its own negligence. For the reasons previously discussed, we conclude that the defendants’ attempt contractually to extend the plaintiff’s assumption of risk one step beyond that identified by the legislature in § 52-557p violates the public policy of the state and, therefore, is invalid.

The defendants contend that the plaintiff’s only claim before the trial court was that the release was ambiguous, and that the plaintiff otherwise conceded the [**1163] release’s enforceability, thereby failing to preserve for appeal the issue of whether the release violated public policy. 10 Put another way, the defendants contend that the issue before the trial court was only whether the addition of the “warning” language to the release as a whole resulted in contradictory language, and that regardless of our decision in Hanks, we still must decide the issue articulated by the trial court. We disagree.

10 As part of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and in an effort to clarify the plaintiff’s case, the trial court asked the plaintiff directly if the release were found to be clear and unambiguous, would it be enforceable: “The Court: You are not trying to claim that it’s not possible under Connecticut law for a person in the defendants’ position to present an effective release to a horse rider and then to rely upon it to avoid liability, are you? “[Plaintiff’s Counsel]: Absolutely not, Your Honor. . . . “The Court: Okay. Then . . . so that what we have to do is to determine whether this is a sufficient release. That’s the only issue before us. “[Plaintiff’s Counsel]: Absolutely, Your Honor.” (Emphasis added.)

[***20] We recognize that [HN9] this court is not “bound to consider a claim unless it was distinctly raised at the trial or arose subsequent to the trial.” Practice Book § 60-5; see also Pestey v. Cushman, 259 Conn. 345, 372-74, 788 A.2d 496 (2002). Additionally, as a general rule, “[a] [*165] party cannot present a case to the trial court on one theory and then ask a reversal in the [S]upreme [C]ourt on another.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sorrentino v. All Seasons Services, Inc., 245 Conn. 756, 770, 717 A.2d 150 (1998). This court, however, has the discretion to act, sua sponte, on grounds not directly raised by the parties. See Burton v. Browd, 258 Conn. 566, 569, 783 A.2d 457 (2001). That is exactly what we did in the present case when, in light of our decision in Hanks, we ordered the parties to brief the issue of whether the release was void as a matter of public policy. 11 In sum, because Hanks resolved an issue previously unaddressed, and because the parties had the opportunity to brief the case’s impact, we conclude that the interest in the uniform application of the plainly [***21] governing law warrants our consideration of a claim beyond the narrow issue that was before the trial court.

11 See footnote 2 of this opinion.

Finally, the defendants contend that horseback riding is somehow different from snowtubing and, therefore, that the defendants’ release does not violate public policy. In particular, the defendants note that horseback riding is not one of the recreational activities that we specifically identified by name in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 335, and that, unlike in Hanks, which involved an injury caused by a defective snowtube run, in the present case the plaintiff was injured when the horse she was riding bucked and threw her to the ground. The defendants claim that this distinction is significant because they characterize a bucking horse as a risk that is inherent to horseback riding in general. We are not persuaded.

The list of recreational activities that we identified in Hanks was meant to be illustrative, [***22] not exhaustive. See id. Indeed, it would be impossible for us to identify all of the recreational activities controlled by the Hanks [*166] decision. 12 Additionally, as previously [**1164] discussed in detail, the circumstances surrounding the defendants’ horseback riding business and the signing of the release by the plaintiff bear many similarities to the circumstances present in Hanks. In particular, the defendants’ horseback riding business was open to the general public regardless of skill level, the plaintiff was ill equipped to discern whether she had been paired negligently with her horse and instructor commensurate with her skill level, the defendants controlled which horse and instructor were assigned to the plaintiff, and the defendants’ release constituted a classic contract of adhesion.

12 We are mindful that contrary to the defendants’ argument, our courts repeatedly have referenced horseback riding as a recreational activity. See Conway v. Wilton, 238 Conn. 653, 668, 680 A.2d 242 (1996) (state legislator commenting on necessity of “maintaining land that could very well serve for . . . horseback riding and for many other recreational activities”); Miskimen v. Biber, 85 Conn. App. 615, 620, 858 A.2d 806 (2004) (“[t]he excess land is also used for . . . horseback riding and other recreational activities”), cert. denied, 272 Conn. 916, 866 A.2d 1287 (2005). Moreover, our characterization of snowtubing as a recreational activity; see Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 330; does not, in and of itself, dictate our public policy.

[***23] Furthermore, the fact that there are certain risks that are inherent to horseback riding as a recreational activity, as the legislature recognized in § 52-557p, one of which may be that horses move unexpectedly, does not change the fact that an operator’s negligence may contribute greatly to that risk. For example, the defendants’ may have negligently paired the plaintiff with an inappropriate horse given the length of time since she last had ridden or negligently paired the plaintiff with an instructor who had not properly been trained on how to handle the horse in question. Both of these scenarios present factual questions that, at trial, may reveal that the defendants’ negligence, and not an inherent risk of the activity, was to blame for the plaintiff’s injuries.

[*167] Moreover, as aptly noted at oral argument before this court, the plaintiff does not challenge the fact that there were risks inherent in the activity of horseback riding that she otherwise was prepared to assume. Rather, she challenges the defendants’ claimed indemnity from the alleged neglect and carelessness of the stable operator and its employees to whom she entrusted her safety. Indeed, the inherent unpredictability [***24] of a horse is something that the legislature already has considered in providing to an operator of a horseback riding facility a defense to a claim of negligence pursuant to the assumption of risk doctrine codified in § 52-557p. This protection granted by the legislature, however, does not permit the operator to avoid liability entirely for its negligence or that of its employees. Accordingly, on the basis of our decision in Hanks, as well as the circumstances of the present case, we are unable to conclude that the recreational activity of horseback riding is so different from snowtubing that the release in this case should be enforced as a matter of law.

The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded to the trial court with direction to deny the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and for further proceedings according to law.

In this opinion KATZ, VERTEFEUILLE and ZARELLA, Js., concurred.

CONCUR BY: NORCOTT

CONCUR

NORCOTT, J., concurring. I agree with the majority that this court’s holding in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) [***25] , controls the present case.

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Ricci v. Schoultz, M.D., 963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745

Ricci v. Schoultz, M.D., 963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745

Gary Ricci, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Charles Schoultz, M.D., Defendant and Appellee.

Case No. 971189-CA

COURT OF APPEALS OF UTAH

963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745

July 23, 1998, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Third District, Salt Lake Department. The Honorable Homer F. Wilkinson.

COUNSEL: Jeffrey D. Eisenberg, Alan W. Mortensen, and Paul M. Simmons, Salt Lake City, for Appellant.

Paul M. Belnap, Robert L. Janicki, and Darren K. Nelson, Salt Lake City, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before Judith M. Billings, Judge. I CONCUR: Russell W. Bench, Judge. Gregory K. Orme, Judge, Dissenting.

OPINION BY: JUDITH M. BILLINGS

OPINION

[*785] OPINION

BILLINGS, Judge:

Appellant Gary Ricci appeals the trial court’s grant of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (j.n.o.v.) to Dr. Charles Schoultz, dismissing Ricci’s negligence claims. We affirm.

FACTS

The parties had completely different versions of how the accident occurred. [HN1] “We must review the record and determine whether there is any basis in the evidence, including reasonable inferences which could be drawn therefrom, to support the jury’s determination that [Schoultz] was negligent.” Braithwaite v. West Valley City Corp., 921 P.2d 997, 999 (Utah 1996). Thus, we recite the facts in a light most favorable to Ricci.

On April 12, 1994, Ricci and Schoultz were skiing [**2] at Snowbird Ski Resort (Snowbird) in Salt Lake County, Utah. Both parties were advanced skiers. On the sunny morning of the accident they were skiing an “easy run” that was groomed and had only a few skiers on it. Schoultz was skiing down Anderson Hill when Ricci reached the top of the run. Ricci began to ski towards the bottom and in the direction of Schoultz. Schoultz was taking a ski lesson and was making a number of small controlled turns as he descended. Schoultz and Ricci were both skiing at the same speed and in control throughout their descent. However, Schoultz slowed as he approached a small crest on the ski run and Ricci closed to within a few feet behind Schoultz. Schoultz unexpectedly lost control of his skis, and within a few seconds he fell to the left, and into Ricci, who was unable to avoid Schoultz. The two skiers slid into a tree well, with Ricci striking the tree with some force. Ricci suffered significant injuries and was eventually life-flighted to a local hospital. Schoultz was merely bruised and skied down the mountain on his own.

At trial, Ricci argued that since Schoultz’s fall took place on one of the easiest runs at Snowbird under near perfect conditions, [**3] there was no possible reason for Schoultz to have fallen except for his own negligence. The jury found that Schoultz was negligent, and that his failure to ski in control was the cause of the accident. Schoultz moved for a j.n.o.v. on the grounds that Ricci failed to demonstrate that Schoultz, by falling unexpectedly in front of him, had breached any duty he owed to Ricci. The trial judge agreed: “There was a duty not to be negligent. But there was no negligence on the part of defendant in this case.” Thus, the trial judge granted Schoultz’s j.n.o.v. motion, or alternatively granted a new trial. Ricci now appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Our standard for reviewing a trial court’s grant of a j.n.o.v. is strict: [HN2] “‘In passing on a motion for a j.n.o.v., . . . a trial court has no latitude and must be correct.'” Braithwaite, 921 P.2d at 999 (quoting Crookston v. Fire Ins. Exch., 817 P.2d 789, 799 (Utah 1991)). Further,

“The trial court [is] justified in granting a j.n.o.v. only if, after looking at the evidence and all of its reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to [the nonmoving party], the trial court concludes that there [is] no competent evidence to support [**4] a verdict in [the nonmoving party’s] favor.”

Id. (quoting Gold Standard, Inc. v. Getty Oil Co., 915 P.2d 1060, 1066 (Utah 1996)). “On appeal, we apply the same standard. In determining whether competent evidence supports the verdict, we accept as true all testimony and reasonable inferences flowing therefrom that tend to prove [the nonmoving party’s] case, and we disregard all conflicts [*786] and evidence that tend to disprove its case.” Gold Standard, 915 P.2d at 1066 (citing Koer v. Mayfair Mkts., 19 Utah 2d 339, 340, 431 P.2d 566, 568-69 (1967) (additional citation omitted). Thus, if we determine that there was competent evidence supporting the jury’s verdict, we must reverse the trial court’s grant of the j.n.o.v.

ANALYSIS

Although there is no helpful Utah authority, other state and federal courts have dealt with similar ski collision cases.

In LaVine v. Clear Creek Skiing Corp., 557 F.2d 730, 735 (10th Cir. 1977), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the plaintiff could not recover from defendant for injuries sustained in a mid-mountain ski collision. Similar to the case at bar, the defendant was skiing behind [**5] the plaintiff and failed to alert plaintiff of his presence before they collided. See id. at 735. The LaVine court specifically rejected the appellant’s claim of negligence: “Appellant contends that the collision itself conclusively establishes the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s right to recover. We disagree.” Id.

More recently, in Dillworth v. Gambardella, 970 F.2d 1113, 1114 (2d Cir. 1992), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with a similar issue: “Whether collisions between skiers require as a matter of law . . . a finding of negligence on the part of at least one skier.” In Dillworth, the parties had significantly different versions of the facts leading up to the mid-mountain collision, but the result was the same as this case–significant injuries to the party bringing the cause of action. See id. at 1114-15. The Dillworth court stated [HN3] some collisions between skiers may be as a result of the obvious and necessary risks inherent in skiing, and accidents might occur despite the exercise of ordinary and reasonable care and without negligence by either skier. . . . Like all others, skiers owe that degree of care an ordinary prudent person [**6] would exercise under like or similar circumstances. One skier is not the insurer of another skier’s safety nor, absent negligence, is one skier liable to another for inadvertent or accidental contact. . . . Thus . . . skiers who lose control even while exercising due care–that is, have breached no duty owed to other skiers–may pose a danger which is inherent, obvious and necessary to participate in the sport of skiing.

Id. at 1122 (citing LaVine, 557 F.2d 734-35) (additional citations omitted).

Cases that have supported a finding of negligence in a ski collision have required proof of some negligent conduct before the collision. For example, in Freeman v. Hale, 30 Cal. App. 4th 1388, 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d 418, 420 (Cal. Ct. App. 1994), two skiers collided while descending a ski slope and the plaintiff suffered severe injuries as a result of the accident. In Freeman, however, the defendant had consumed a large quantity of alcohol, and was inebriated when the collision occurred. See 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 420. The California Court of Appeals succinctly summarized its conclusion that a negligence regime was the proper way to analyze liability: “While Hale did not have a duty [**7] to avoid an inadvertent collision with Freeman, he did have a duty to avoid increasing the risk of such a collision.” Id. at 423-24 (citing Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 834 P.2d 696, 710-11 (Cal. 1992)). The Freeman court concluded that alcohol consumption was not an integral aspect of skiing, and that by consuming alcohol prior to and during his skiing, defendant breached his duty to plaintiff “‘not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport.'” 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 421 (quoting Knight, 834 P.2d at 710).

In sum, [HN4] a skier does have a duty to other skiers to ski reasonably and within control. However, an inadvertent fall on a ski slope, alone, does not constitute a breach of this duty. We conclude, after a careful review of the trial record, that Ricci failed to introduce any competent evidence that Schoultz was skiing negligently before his sudden and unexpected fall in front of Ricci. Ricci himself testified about the conditions and events just before the accident, noting that up to one second before the collision, Schoultz was skiing in control. Schoultz’s [*787] loss of control and fall, by itself, does not establish his negligence.

Ricci’s [**8] evidence, including all reasonable inferences drawn from it, is simply insufficient for a jury to have concluded that Schoultz skied negligently. We conclude the trial court was correct in determining that Schoultz did not breach his duty of reasonable care to Ricci by accidentally falling into Ricci when there was no evidence that Schoultz was skiing negligently at the time of his fall. Because we agree with the trial court’s ruling, we do not reach the questions of whether a new trial should have been granted or whether the trial court’s decisions to exclude Schoultz’s expert witness testimony were proper.

CONCLUSION

Some collisions between skiers are an inherent risk of skiing and may occur absent negligence, as in this case. Thus, we affirm the trial court’s grant of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Judith M. Billings, Judge

I CONCUR:

Russell W. Bench, Judge

DISSENT BY: GREGORY K. ORME

DISSENT

ORME, Judge (dissenting):

By focusing on the evidence plaintiff presented, rather than all evidence in the record and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, my colleagues take a too narrow view of our role in reviewing a trial court’s reversal of a [**9] jury’s verdict. Simply stated, the question is not whether the evidence plaintiff presented supports the jury’s verdict; rather, it is whether any evidence from whatever source will support it. See Gold Standard, Inc. v. Getty Oil Co., 915 P.2d 1060, 1066 (Utah 1996) (“In determining whether competent evidence supports the verdict, we accept as true all testimony and reasonable inferences flowing therefrom that tend to prove [the nonmoving party’s] case, and we disregard all conflicts and evidence that tend to disprove its case.”). As the Fifth Circuit has noted,

on motions for directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict the Court should consider all of the evidence– not just that evidence which supports the non-mover’s case–but in the light and with all reasonable inferences most favorable to the party opposed to the motion.Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 1969) (en banc), overruled on other grounds, Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331, 336, 339 (5th Cir. 1997). Accord Guilbeau v. W. W. Henry Co., 85 F.3d 1149, 1161 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 136 L. Ed. 2d 713, 117 S. Ct. 766 (1997); Lamb [**10] ex rel. Shepard v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 1 F.3d 1184, 1187 (11th Cir. 1993); Epoch Producing Corp. v. Killiam Shows Inc., 522 F.2d 737, 743 (2d Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 955, 47 L. Ed. 2d 360, 96 S. Ct. 1429 (1976); Anderson v. Lykes Pasco Packing Co., 503 So. 2d 1269, 1271-72 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1986); Millet v. Cormier, 671 So. 2d 1101, 1107-08 (La. Ct. App.), cert. denied, 673 So. 2d 1036 (La. 1996).

In this case, the jury might well have believed defendant’s testimony that he was skiing in complete control until immediately before the accident, that his skis did not come apart, and that he did not fall. Rejecting defendant’s testimony that he was hit from behind by plaintiff, which was essentially impossible given where the two ended up after the collision, the jury was also free to disbelieve plaintiff’s recollection that defendant’s skis separated and defendant merely fell into plaintiff’s path. The jury could nonetheless have believed plaintiff’s testimony that, immediately prior to the collision, he was skiing in control and a safe distance from defendant and defendant’s apparently intended route. Mindful that plaintiff and defendant ended up [**11] in a heap well off the ski run, in a position consistent with defendant hitting into plaintiff at high speed, the jury might well have inferred that the only way the accident could have occurred was if defendant, fully in control, carelessly and precipitously turned sharply to the left, hitting the unsuspecting plaintiff, who had every reason to assume defendant was going to continue with his pattern of tight turns as plaintiff passed uneventfully on the left.

To be sure, this is not exactly the theory plaintiff developed at trial, but it is a scenario that emerges quite readily if one reviews all the evidence and all reasonable inferences that could be drawn therefrom in the light [*788] most favorable to the jury’s verdict. If that is what the jury concluded, then the accident was caused by defendant’s negligence, not an inadvertent fall. Accordingly, the trial court should not have disturbed the jury’s verdict, and we should reinstate it.

Gregory K. Orme, Judge


Michigan Equine helped the plaintiff more than the stable and helped prove there may be gross negligence on the part of the defendant

Plaintiff argues gross negligence claim which appellate court agreed raise enough triable issues of fact to send the case back to the trial court.

Hawkins, v Ranch Rudolph, Inc., 2005 Mich. App. LEXIS 2366

State: Michigan, COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

Plaintiff: Bret D. Hawkins and Erin Hawkins

Defendant: v Ranch Rudolph, Inc. and Circle H Stables, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Actions not negligent

Holding: For Plaintiff

Year: 2005

The plaintiffs were on their honeymoon and signed up for a trail ride. They chose the “Wrangler Ride” offered by the defendant because the groom had never been on a horse before. The Bride had only been on a horse once when she was eleven. The Wrangler Ride was a four mile single file ride on trails through the woods.

The trail guide or wrangler chose a horse for the groom that was very gentle, normally used for kids. The wrangler gave everyone basic instructions how to stay on the horse and use the reins. The wrangler saddled the horses and double checked the saddles before and after the guests mounted their horses.

The groom claimed after mounting the horse he complained that his saddle was not securely fastened. The wrangler did not recall the groom making this request. She also did not notice the saddle was loose while the groom was mounting the horse.

During the ride the wrangler asked if they wanted to trot their horses and asked if anyone was opposed to the idea. She also said if they were having trouble to yell.

At this point the plaintiff’s version of the facts are so fare outside of the scope of a normal operation or how horses would respond it is clear the facts were altered or made up to support their claims.

According to plaintiffs, Ridge and her horse then “bolted” into a fast, or full-out run, and the other horses followed her lead. Both plaintiffs stated that when their horses began running they were too surprised or shocked to yell and were just trying to hang on. According to Bret, his saddle slid to the right and he grabbed the saddlehorn and the back of the saddle as instructed but was still falling off his horse. He stated that his arm hit a tree so hard that he suffered a humeral fracture. He then fell from the horse.

However the wrangler and other people on the ride described the events quite differently.

According to Ridge, a trot is a fast walk, “slower than a canter, and much slower than a run or gallop.” Other experienced riders in the group characterized a trot in similar language.

One of the other participants attested that he checked the saddle after the fall and it was not loose.

On top of that the facts are just too absurd to be believable. No trail ride, no matter how good the riders are going to take off on a gallop. It is dangerous for riders of all abilities and horses. Second, normally, the first thing someone in trouble or seeing a risk does is scream. Thirdly, if you are holding on to the saddlehorn with one hand and the back of the saddle with the other, how does your arm fly out and strike a tree?

The trial court could not find facts in the plaintiff’s version of the facts that would rise to the level required to prove negligence under Michigan law. The release voided all ordinary negligence claims so only the gross negligence claim was viable.

The case was dismissed and the plaintiff’s appealed.

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

The basic claim of the plaintiff is there were issues of fact in dispute giving rise to enough for a jury to decide.

The first issue the court addressed was the witness statements, but not directly. Rather the court looked at what a witness may say. Basically it is about anything as long as it is relevant to the case. Lay witnesses, witnesses that are not qualified as an expert witness, can provide opinions.

As an initial matter, plaintiffs’ testimony was admissible because it was based on their personal observations and perceptions. MRE 602. To the extent that plaintiffs’ testimony merely amounted to opinion, such testimony would nevertheless be admissible evidence. MRE 701. “MRE 701 allows opinion testimony by a lay witness as long as the opinion is rationally based on the perception of the witness and helpful to a clear understanding of his testimony or a fact in issue.” “Once a witness’s opportunity to observe is demonstrated, the opinion is admissible in the discretion of the trial court, and the weight to be accorded the testimony is for the jury to decide.” Moreover, laypersons are permitted to testify regarding speed. Therefore, that plaintiffs lacked experience with horses merely goes to the weight of their testimony not to its admissibility.

So no matter how farfetched or contrived the statements of a witness, if they cannot be proved as false, they are admitted into court.

The court then looked at gross negligence in Michigan. “…gross negligence should be defined as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.”

Since under Michigan and most other (if not all) state laws a release does not void a claim for gross negligence, the only claims left of the plaintiff were the gross negligence claims.

The Michigan Equine Liability act allows the use of a release by horse owners.

§ 691.1666.  Notice; posting and maintenance of signs; contract; contents of notice.

(2) A written contract entered into by an equine professional for providing professional services, instruction, or rental of equipment, tack, or an equine to a participant, whether or not the contract involves an equine activity on or off the location or site of the equine professional’s business, shall contain in clearly readable print the warning notice set forth in subsection (3).

The court pointed out that the act did not provide protection for the “equine professional.” As such, the only claims available to the plaintiff were the claims for gross negligence.

The court then found that the plaintiff’s claims if viewed in a light most favorable to them could be found to be valid to prove a claim of gross negligence.

We conclude that viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether her conduct of taking a totally inexperienced rider on a fast ride was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.

There is a dissenting opinion that found the trial court was correct in its analysis of the facts. However the majority opinion found that the issue at trial in this case was the decision to speed up the ride.

However, in our collective opinion, our point of departure from our esteemed colleague’s dissenting opinion is the trail guide’s decision to speed up the pace when plaintiff had never ridden a horse before. For a first time rider, yelling “Whoa Nellie” or in this instance, “Whoa Tye” hoping to slow the horse down or to obtain the trail guide’s attention for help could be difficult.

The court went on to explain its reasoning.

Ridge was in control of the horses’ speed, as the guide riding the lead horse. And Bret’s horse “bolted” not because it was scared, which would clearly be an inherent risk of an equine activity, but because it was following Ridge’s lead. It cannot be disputed that she made the conscious decision to “speed things up a little bit,” knowing that Bret lacked the requisite experience to control the animal on which he rode. It would seem that it was indisputably an important part of Ridge’s job to look after the safety of those placed in her care.

The court sent the case back to trial.

A reasonable person could conclude that Ridge’s conduct of taking plaintiffs on a fast ride given their known lack of experience unreasonably added to the risks of the already dangerous activity and was thus so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.

So Now What?  (Motivational get them to do something post)

First the Michigan Equine Liability Statute only protects a horse owner from the actions of the horse. There was no protection for the actions of the wrangler or the stable. No matter how written all equine liability acts have been written in a similar way leaving wide open any lawsuit claiming the injury the plaintiff received was do the owner’s negligence.

As I have said in the past, Equine Liability Acts are 100% effective, since their enactment no horses have been sued. However the acts were so glaring deficient they have seemingly increased the number of lawsuits against horse owners.

This defendant wisely followed the requirements of the act and had guests sign a release.

The second issue is wild statements of the injured guests. Actually there are very little ways to counteract these statements except for one. If you can record either in writing, in the minds of witnesses or by a tape the statements of the possible plaintiffs. Keeping good notes on what they said might allow you to at least partially discredit later allegations, but only at trial.

Another real issue that came to light in this case is the other riders who were involved with their actions and opinions. One rider checked the saddle to see if it was tight and others opined they never went faster than a trot. Keeping the other witnesses and participants to an activity engaged and happy can be of infinite value to you later. Remember a Victim is not only the person who was hurt but anyone who saw the victim or was on the trip. These people may need care, maybe not first aid, but at least someone to help them deal with the issues they may be having.

Although those statements would have little value in pre-trial motions, their testimony at trial is the most valuable statements made on the stand. Jurors know that the other guests had a better view, a better understanding of what happened and no axe to grind or wallet to defend.

 

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Michigan Equine Activity Liability Act

MICHIGAN COMPILED LAWS SERVICE

Copyright © 2015 Matthew Bender & Company, Inc.

a member of the LexisNexis Group.

All rights reserved.

This document is current through 2015 Public Act 202 with the exception of Public Acts 160, 167, 170, 173-176, 178-179, 181, 182, 191, and 198.

Chapter 691  Judiciary

Act 351 of 1994  Equine Activity Liability Act

Go to the Michigan Code Archive Directory

MCLS § 691.1662  (2015)

 

§ 691.1661.  Short title. 1

§ 691.1662.  Definitions. 2

§ 691.1663.  Injury, death, or property damage; liability. 5

§ 691.1664.  Liability; exception; waiver. 7

§ 691.1665.  Liability not prevented or limited; conditions. 9

§ 691.1666.  Notice; posting and maintenance of signs; contract; contents of notice. 11

§ 691.1667.  Applicability of act. 12

 

§ 691.1661.  Short title.

Sec. 1.   This act shall be known and may be cited as the “equine activity liability act”.

HISTORY: Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 1, eff March 30, 1995.

NOTES:

Prior codification:

MSA § 12.418(1)

Editor’s notes:

Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995, provides:

“Sec. 7. This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.”.

LexisNexis(R) Michigan analytical references:

Michigan Law and Practice, Animals §§ 61, 71

Michigan Law and Practice, Torts § 74

ALR notes:

Liability of owner or bailor of horse for injury by horse to hirer or bailee thereof, 6 ALR4th 358

Validity, construction, and effect of agreement exempting operator of amusement facility from liability for personal injury or death of patron, 54 ALR5th 513

Liability of owner of horse to person injured or killed when kicked, bitten, knocked down, and the like, 85 ALR2d 1161

Liability of youth camp, its agents or employees, or of scouting leader or organization, for injury to child participant in program, 88 ALR3d 1236

Research references:

4 Am Jur 2d, Animals §§ 96-100, 105, 106, 113-115, 122, 134, 136-141

1C Am Jur Pl & Pr Forms, Rev, Animals, §§ 3, 132-140

13 Am Jur Proof of Facts 2d 473, Knowledge of Animal’s Vicious Propensities

25 Am Jur Proof of Facts 2d 461, Failure to Use Due Care in Providing Horses for Hire

§ 691.1662.  Definitions.

Sec. 2.   As used in this act:

            (a) “Engage in an equine activity” means riding, training, driving, breeding, being a passenger upon, or providing or assisting in veterinary treatment of an equine, whether mounted or unmounted. Engage in an equine activity includes visiting, touring, or utilizing an equine facility as part of an organized event or activity including the breeding of equines, or assisting a participant or show management. Engage in equine activity does not include spectating at an equine activity, unless the spectator places himself or herself in an unauthorized area and in immediate proximity to the equine activity.

            (b) “Equine” means horse, pony, mule, donkey, or hinny.

            (c) “Equine activity” means any of the following:

                        (i) An equine show, fair, competition, performance, or parade including, but not limited to, dressage, a hunter and jumper horse show, grand prix jumping, a 3-day event, combined training, a rodeo, riding, driving, pulling, cutting, polo, steeplechasing, English and western performance riding, endurance trail riding, gymkhana games, and hunting.

                        (ii) Equine training or teaching activities.

                        (iii) Boarding equines, including their normal daily care.

                        (iv) Breeding equines, including the normal daily care and activities associated with breeding equines.

                        (v) Riding, inspecting, or evaluating an equine belonging to another, whether or not the owner receives monetary consideration or another thing of value for the use of the equine or is permitting a prospective purchaser of the equine or an agent to ride, inspect, or evaluate the equine.

                        (vi) A ride, trip, hunt, or other activity, however informal or impromptu, that is sponsored by an equine activity sponsor.

                        (vii) Placing or replacing a horseshoe on or hoof trimming of an equine.

            (d) “Equine activity sponsor” means an individual, group, club, partnership, or corporation, whether or not operating for profit, that sponsors, organizes, or provides the facilities for an equine activity, including, but not limited to, a pony club; 4-H club; hunt club; riding club; school- or college-sponsored class, program, or activity; therapeutic riding program; stable or farm owner; and operator, instructor, or promoter of an equine facility including, but not limited to, a stable, clubhouse, ponyride string, fair, or arena at which the equine activity is held.

            (e) “Equine professional” means a person engaged in any of the following for compensation:

                        (i) Instructing a participant in an equine activity.

                        (ii) Renting an equine, equipment, or tack to a participant.

                        (iii) Providing daily care of horses boarded at an equine facility.

                        (iv) Training an equine.

                        (v) Breeding of equines for resale or stock replenishment.

            (f) “Inherent risk of an equine activity” means a danger or condition that is an integral part of an equine activity, including, but not limited to, any of the following:

                        (i) An equine’s propensity to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to a person on or around it.

                        (ii) The unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to things such as sounds, sudden movement, and people, other animals, or unfamiliar objects.

                        (iii) A hazard such as a surface or subsurface condition.

                        (iv) Colliding with another equine or object.

            (g) “Participant” means an individual, whether amateur or professional, engaged in an equine activity, whether or not a fee is paid to participate.

HISTORY: Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 2, eff March 30, 1995.

NOTES:

Prior codification:

MSA § 12.418(2)

Editor’s notes:

Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995, provides:

“Sec. 7. This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.”.

NOTES TO DECISIONS

Plaintiff, a visitor to a stable, was a “participant” under the Equine Activity Liability Act when she briefly assisted in the care of a horse owned by a friend. Therefore her claim for damages arising from being bitten by a horse was properly dismissed on summary. Amburgey v. Sauder, 238 Mich. App. 228, 605 N.W.2d 84, 1999 Mich. App. LEXIS 282 (Mich. Ct. App. 1999).

Horse owner could invoke MCL § 691.1663 of the Michigan Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL §§ 691.1661 et seq., although she was not an equine professional or an equine activity sponsor because she fit within the definition of “another person” under § 691.1663 of the EALA. Also, she properly was characterized as an equine participant as that term was defined in MCL § 691.1662. Gardner v. Simon, 445 F. Supp. 2d 786, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57228 (W.D. Mich. 2006).

Rider’s injuries while riding a horse resulted from “an inherent risk of an equine activity” as that phrase was defined under MCL § 691.1662(f) of the Michigan Equine Activity Liability Act, MCL §§ 691.1661 et seq., based on the rider’s testimony that, upon being mounted, the horse got a little antsy and started to raise up on the front end a little bit at which time the rider, who was experienced, began turning the horse in tight circles to settle him down. After turning two circles, the horse bumped his head on a tree; reared up and caught one of his front hoofs in a tree; went over backwards and fell on the rider, injuring the rider. Gardner v. Simon, 445 F. Supp. 2d 786, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57228 (W.D. Mich. 2006).

LexisNexis(R) Michigan analytical references:

Michigan Law and Practice, Animals § 73

ALR notes:

Liability of owner or bailor of horse for injury by horse to hirer or bailee thereof, 6 ALR4th 358

Validity, construction, and effect of agreement exempting operator of amusement facility from liability for personal injury or death of patron, 54 ALR5th 513

Liability of owner of horse to person injured or killed when kicked, bitten, knocked down, and the like, 85 ALR2d 1161

Liability of youth camp, its agents or employees, or of scouting leader or organization, for injury to child participant in program, 88 ALR3d 1236

Michigan Digest references:

Animals § 15

Research references:

1C Am Jur Pl & Pr Forms, Rev, Animals, § 1

25 Am Jur Proof of Facts 2d 461, Failure to Use Due Care in Providing Horses for Hire

§ 691.1663.  Injury, death, or property damage; liability.

Sec. 3.   Except as otherwise provided in section 5, an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or another person is not liable for an injury to or the death of a participant or property damage resulting from an inherent risk of an equine activity. Except as otherwise provided in section 5, a participant or participant’s representative shall not make a claim for, or recover, civil damages from an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or another person for injury to or the death of the participant or property damage resulting from an inherent risk of an equine activity.

HISTORY: Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 3, eff March 30, 1995.

NOTES:

Prior codification:

MSA § 12.418(3)

Editor’s notes:

Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995, provides:

“Sec. 7. This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.”.

NOTES TO DECISIONS

Judgment granting summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) in favor of a horse owner in a neighbor’s personal injury action was affirmed because the neighbor failed to produce evidence in support of her claims under MCL 691.1665(b) and (d) as her injury resulted from an inherent risk of an equine activity and she did not prove otherwise. The claim was barred under MCL 691.1663. Beattie v. Mickalich, 284 Mich. App. 564, 773 N.W.2d 748, 2009 Mich. App. LEXIS 1445 (Mich. Ct. App. 2009), rev’d, 486 Mich. 1060, 784 N.W.2d 38, 2010 Mich. LEXIS 1452 (Mich. 2010).

Horse owner could invoke MCL § 691.1663 of the Michigan Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL §§ 691.1661 et seq., although she was not an equine professional or an equine activity sponsor because she fit within the definition of “another person” under § 3 of the EALA. Also, she properly was characterized as an equine participant as that term was defined in MCL § 691.1662. Gardner v. Simon, 445 F. Supp. 2d 786, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57228 (W.D. Mich. 2006).

Bar to liability set forth in MCL § 691.1663 of the Michigan Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL §§ 691.1661 et seq., was subject to MCL § 691.1665, which provided that § 691.1663 of the EALA did not prevent liability for a negligent act or omission that proximately caused an injury. Accordingly, the EALA did not prevent liability on a rider’s claim that a horse owner was negligent in failing to warn the rider about the horse’s dangerous and viscous propensities; and whether the owner acted reasonably by suggesting to the rider that he ride the horse and not warning the rider that the horse was in need of further training, in light of the rider’s extensive experience with horses, was clearly a question of fact for a jury. Gardner v. Simon, 445 F. Supp. 2d 786, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57228 (W.D. Mich. 2006).

Statutory references:

Section 5, above referred to, is § 691.1665.

LexisNexis(R) Michigan analytical references:

Michigan Law and Practice, Animals §§ 71, 73

Michigan Law and Practice, Torts § 74

ALR notes:

Liability of owner or bailor of horse for injury by horse to hirer or bailee thereof, 6 ALR4th 358

Validity, construction, and effect of agreement exempting operator of amusement facility from liability for personal injury or death of patron, 54 ALR5th 513

Liability of owner of horse to person injured or killed when kicked, bitten, knocked down, and the like, 85 ALR2d 1161

Liability of youth camp, its agents or employees, or of scouting leader or organization, for injury to child participant in program, 88 ALR3d 1236

Michigan Digest references:

Animals § 15

Research references:

4 Am Jur 2d, Animals §§ 96-100, 105, 106, 113-115, 122, 134, 136-141

1C Am Jur Pl & Pr Forms, Rev, Animals, §§ 3, 132-140

13 Am Jur Proof of Facts 2d 473, Knowledge of Animal’s Vicious Propensities

25 Am Jur Proof of Facts 2d 461, Failure to Use Due Care in Providing Horses for Hire

§ 691.1664.  Liability; exception; waiver.

Sec. 4.   (1) This act does not apply to a horse race meeting that is regulated by the racing law of 1980, Act No. 327 of the Public Acts of 1980, being sections 431.61 to 431.88 of the Michigan Compiled Laws.

(2) Two persons may agree in writing to a waiver of liability beyond the provisions of this act and such waiver shall be valid and binding by its terms.

HISTORY: Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 4, eff March 30, 1995.

NOTES:

Prior codification:

MSA § 12.418(4)

Editor’s notes:

Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995, provides:

“Sec. 7. This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.”.

NOTES TO DECISIONS

The Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA) provides immunity to commercial riding stables from claims for damages resulting from the inherent risks of horseback riding and being around horses, but the immunity provision does not apply to horse race meetings; a horse race meeting within the meaning of the EALA includes the activity of exercising a race horse at a track in preparation for a race; while the EALA did not confer immunity on a race track in a suit brought by a exercise rider who was injured when he was thrown from a horse, the release signed by the plaintiff was broad enough to protect the defendant from liability. Cole v. Ladbroke Racing Mich., Inc., 241 Mich. App. 1, 614 N.W.2d 169, 2000 Mich. App. LEXIS 110 (Mich. Ct. App. 2000), app. denied, 463 Mich. 972, 623 N.W.2d 595, 2001 Mich. LEXIS 223 (Mich. 2001).

LexisNexis(R) Michigan analytical references:

Michigan Law and Practice, Animals § 71

Michigan Law and Practice, Torts § 74

ALR notes:

Liability of owner or bailor of horse for injury by horse to hirer or bailee thereof, 6 ALR4th 358

Validity, construction, and effect of agreement exempting operator of amusement facility from liability for personal injury or death of patron, 54 ALR5th 513

Liability of owner of horse to person injured or killed when kicked, bitten, knocked down, and the like, 85 ALR2d 1161

Liability of youth camp, its agents or employees, or of scouting leader or organization, for injury to child participant in program, 88 ALR3d 1236

Michigan Digest references:

Animals § 13

Research references:

4 Am Jur 2d, Animals §§ 96-100, 105, 106, 113-115, 122, 134, 136-141

25 Am Jur Proof of Facts 2d 461, Failure to Use Due Care in Providing Horses for Hire

Legal periodicals:

Fayz, Annual Survey of Michigan Law, June 1, 1999-May 31, 2000: Torts, 47 Wayne L Rev 719 (2001)

§ 691.1664.  Liability; exception; waiver.

Sec. 4.   (1) This act does not apply to a horse race meeting that is regulated by the racing law of 1980, Act No. 327 of the Public Acts of 1980, being sections 431.61 to 431.88 of the Michigan Compiled Laws.

(2) Two persons may agree in writing to a waiver of liability beyond the provisions of this act and such waiver shall be valid and binding by its terms.

HISTORY: Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 4, eff March 30, 1995.

NOTES:

Prior codification:

MSA § 12.418(4)

Editor’s notes:

Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995, provides:

“Sec. 7. This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.”.

NOTES TO DECISIONS

The Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA) provides immunity to commercial riding stables from claims for damages resulting from the inherent risks of horseback riding and being around horses, but the immunity provision does not apply to horse race meetings; a horse race meeting within the meaning of the EALA includes the activity of exercising a race horse at a track in preparation for a race; while the EALA did not confer immunity on a race track in a suit brought by a exercise rider who was injured when he was thrown from a horse, the release signed by the plaintiff was broad enough to protect the defendant from liability. Cole v. Ladbroke Racing Mich., Inc., 241 Mich. App. 1, 614 N.W.2d 169, 2000 Mich. App. LEXIS 110 (Mich. Ct. App. 2000), app. denied, 463 Mich. 972, 623 N.W.2d 595, 2001 Mich. LEXIS 223 (Mich. 2001).

LexisNexis(R) Michigan analytical references:

Michigan Law and Practice, Animals § 71

Michigan Law and Practice, Torts § 74

ALR notes:

Liability of owner or bailor of horse for injury by horse to hirer or bailee thereof, 6 ALR4th 358

Validity, construction, and effect of agreement exempting operator of amusement facility from liability for personal injury or death of patron, 54 ALR5th 513

Liability of owner of horse to person injured or killed when kicked, bitten, knocked down, and the like, 85 ALR2d 1161

Liability of youth camp, its agents or employees, or of scouting leader or organization, for injury to child participant in program, 88 ALR3d 1236

Michigan Digest references:

Animals § 13

Research references:

4 Am Jur 2d, Animals §§ 96-100, 105, 106, 113-115, 122, 134, 136-141

25 Am Jur Proof of Facts 2d 461, Failure to Use Due Care in Providing Horses for Hire

Legal periodicals:

Fayz, Annual Survey of Michigan Law, June 1, 1999-May 31, 2000: Torts, 47 Wayne L Rev 719 (2001)

§ 691.1665.  Liability not prevented or limited; conditions.

Sec. 5.   Section 3 does not prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or another person if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or other person does any of the following:

            (a) Provides equipment or tack and knows or should know that the equipment or tack is faulty, and the equipment or tack is faulty to the extent that it is a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.

            (b) Provides an equine and fails to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity and to determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular equine. A person shall not rely upon a participant’s representations of his or her ability unless these representations are supported by reasonably sufficient detail.

            (c) Owns, leases, rents, has authorized use of, or otherwise is in lawful possession and control of land or facilities on which the participant sustained injury because of a dangerous latent condition of the land or facilities that is known to the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or other person and for which warning signs are not conspicuously posted.

            (d) If the person is an equine activity sponsor or equine professional, commits an act or omission that constitutes a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant, and that is a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.

            (e) If the person is not an equine activity sponsor or equine professional, commits a negligent act or omission that constitutes a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.

HISTORY: Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 5, eff March 30, 1995; amended by Pub Acts 2015, No. 87, eff September 21, 2015.

NOTES:

Prior codification:

MSA § 12.418(5)

Editor’s notes:

Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995, provides:

“Sec. 7. This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.”.

Amendment Notes

The 2015 amendment by PA 87 rewrote (d), which formerly read: “Commits a negligent act or omission that constitutes a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage”; and added (e).

NOTES TO DECISIONS

Judgment granting summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) in favor of a horse owner in a neighbor’s personal injury action was affirmed because the neighbor failed to produce evidence in support of her claims under MCL 691.1665(b) and (d) as her injury resulted from an inherent risk of an equine activity and she did not prove otherwise. The claim was barred under MCL 691.1663. Beattie v. Mickalich, 284 Mich. App. 564, 773 N.W.2d 748, 2009 Mich. App. LEXIS 1445 (Mich. Ct. App. 2009), rev’d, 486 Mich. 1060, 784 N.W.2d 38, 2010 Mich. LEXIS 1452 (Mich. 2010).

Bar to liability set forth in MCL § 691.1663 of the Michigan Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL §§ 691.1661 et seq., was subject to MCL § 691.1665, which provided that § 691.1663 of the EALA did not prevent liability for a negligent act or omission that proximately caused an injury. Accordingly, the EALA did not prevent liability on a rider’s claim that a horse owner was negligent in failing to warn the rider about the horse’s dangerous and viscous propensities; and whether the owner acted reasonably by suggesting to the rider that he ride the horse and not warning the rider that the horse was in need of further training, in light of the rider’s extensive experience with horses, was clearly a question of fact for a jury. Gardner v. Simon, 445 F. Supp. 2d 786, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57228 (W.D. Mich. 2006).

Statutory references:

Section 3, above referred to, is § 691.1663.

LexisNexis(R) Michigan analytical references:

Michigan Law and Practice, Animals § 71

ALR notes:

Liability of owner or bailor of horse for injury by horse to hirer or bailee thereof, 6 ALR4th 358

Validity, construction, and effect of agreement exempting operator of amusement facility from liability for personal injury or death of patron, 54 ALR5th 513

Liability of owner of horse to person injured or killed when kicked, bitten, knocked down, and the like, 85 ALR2d 1161

Liability of youth camp, its agents or employees, or of scouting leader or organization, for injury to child participant in program, 88 ALR3d 1236

Michigan Digest references:

Animals § 15

Research references:

4 Am Jur 2d, Animals §§ 96-100, 105, 106, 113-115, 122, 134, 136-141

1C Am Jur Pl & Pr Forms, Rev, Animals, §§ 3, 132-140

25 Am Jur Proof of Facts 2d 461, Failure to Use Due Care in Providing Horses for Hire

Act 351 of 1994  Equine Activity Liability Act prec 691.1661

AN ACT to regulate civil liability related to equine activities; and to prescribe certain duties for equine professionals.

The People of the State of Michigan enact:

HISTORY: ACT 351, 1994, p 1749, eff March 30, 1995.

NOTES:

Editor’s notes:

Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995, provides:

“Sec. 7. This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.”

§ 691.1666.  Notice; posting and maintenance of signs; contract; contents of notice.

Sec. 6.   (1) An equine professional shall post and maintain signs that contain the warning notice set forth in subsection (3). The signs shall be placed in a clearly visible location in close proximity to the equine activity. The warning notice shall appear on the sign in conspicuous letters no less than 1 inch in height.

(2) A written contract entered into by an equine professional for providing professional services, instruction, or rental of equipment, tack, or an equine to a participant, whether or not the contract involves an equine activity on or off the location or site of the equine professional’s business, shall contain in clearly readable print the warning notice set forth in subsection (3).

(3) A sign or contract described in this section shall contain substantially the following warning notice:

WARNING

Under the Michigan equine activity liability act, an equine professional is not liable for an injury to or the death of a participant in an equine activity resulting from an inherent risk of the equine activity.

HISTORY: Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 6, eff March 30, 1995.

NOTES:

Prior codification:

MSA § 12.418(6)

Editor’s notes:

Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995, provides:

“Sec. 7. This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.”.

LexisNexis(R) Michigan analytical references:

Michigan Law and Practice, Animals § 72

ALR notes:

Liability of owner or bailor of horse for injury by horse to hirer or bailee thereof, 6 ALR4th 358

Validity, construction, and effect of agreement exempting operator of amusement facility from liability for personal injury or death of patron, 54 ALR5th 513

Liability of owner of horse to person injured or killed when kicked, bitten, knocked down, and the like, 85 ALR2d 1161

Liability of youth camp, its agents or employees, or of scouting leader or organization, for injury to child participant in program, 88 ALR3d 1236

§ 691.1667.  Applicability of act.

Sec. 7.   This act applies only to a cause of action filed on or after the effective date of this act.

HISTORY: Pub Acts 1994, No. 351, § 7, eff March 30, 1995.

NOTES:

Prior codification:

MSA § 12.418(7)

 


Hawkins, v Ranch Rudolph, Inc., 2005 Mich. App. LEXIS 2366

Hawkins, v Ranch Rudolph, Inc., 2005 Mich. App. LEXIS 2366

Bret D. Hawkins and Erin Hawkins, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v Ranch Rudolph, Inc. and Circle H Stables, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 254771

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

September 27, 2005, Decided

NOTICE: [*1] THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

PRIOR HISTORY: Grand Traverse Circuit Court. LC No. 03-022735-NO.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

JUDGES: Before: Meter, P.J., and Murray and Schuette, JJ.

OPINION

PER CURIAM.

Plaintiffs appeal as of right from the order granting defendants summary disposition. Bret Hawkins was injured after falling off a horse during a guided trail ride conducted by defendants. We reverse and remand.

I. FACTS

On June 18, 2002, plaintiffs, who were on their honeymoon, went to defendants’ stables to participate in a guided horseback trail ride. Defendants offered several different types of rides, based on age and level of experience. Plaintiffs chose the “Wrangler Ride,” which was described by defendants’ brochure as a “walk/trot ride” and had the minimum age requirement of eight-years-old. The ride consisted of a four-mile, single-file ride on wooded trails. Plaintiffs chose the “Wrangler Ride” because Bret had never ridden a horse before. Before participating, however, [*2] plaintiffs executed a release and indemnification waiver, in accordance with § 6 of the Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL 691.1661 et seq. MCL 691.1666.

Prior to beginning the ride, defendants’ trail guide, Kate Ridge, asked all the participants about their riding experience. Erin Hawkins indicated that she had only ridden a horse once before when she was eleven-years-old, and Bret indicated that he had never ridden a horse. In light of Bret’s lack of experience, Ridge assigned him “Tye,” a horse that defendants typically assign to beginning riders, including children, because he was calm and easy to ride. Plaintiffs were given basic instructions regarding how to stay on the horse and how to use the reins. According to Ridge, she saddled the horses before the ride and then double-checked all the saddles both before and after the horses were mounted. Bret claimed that after mounting Tye, he complained to Ridge that his saddle was not securely fastened, and she checked it again. Ridge stated that she did not recall Bret telling her his saddle was loose before the ride and she did not notice that it was loose while he [*3] was mounting the horse.

The ride started out at a slow walk, but after awhile, Ridge asked the participants if they wanted to go a little faster. The group responded, “Yes,” and Ridge told them to hold on to the saddlehorn with one hand and to put the other hand on the back of the saddle, and to yell if they wanted to slow down. According to plaintiffs, Ridge and her horse then “bolted” into a fast, or full-out run, and the other horses followed her lead. Both plaintiffs stated that when their horses began running they were too surprised or shocked to yell and were just trying to hang on. According to Bret, his saddle slid to the right and he grabbed the saddlehorn and the back of the saddle as instructed but was still falling off his horse. He stated that his arm hit a tree so hard that he suffered a humeral fracture. He then fell from the horse.

Defendants and Ridge denied that the horses were running. According to defendants, midway through the ride, Ridge asked the participants if they would like to begin a “short trot.” According to Ridge, a trot is a fast walk, “slower than a canter, and much slower than a run or gallop.” Other experienced riders in the group characterized [*4] a trot in similar language. After asking for but hearing no objections, defendants contended that Ridge then proceeded to trot the horses. Defendant noted that if anyone had stated that they did not want to trot, Ridge would not have began the trot and continued with the walk. Defendant also explained that horses are not permitted to engage in a “fast run” during rides.

Plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging gross negligence. Defendants moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), (C)(8), and (C)(10), arguing, in pertinent part, that given the facts, even if there was a question of fact regarding whether defendants’ conduct amounted to negligence, reasonable jurors could not differ that defendants’ conduct did not amount to gross negligence. Defendant pointed out that Ridge attested that a couple seconds after commencing the trot she heard a scream and turned around to see that Bret had dropped his reins and was hanging on to the saddle horn with both hands, which she instructed him not to do. Ridge stated that Bret was losing his balance and leaning far to the right and he fell off his horse after hitting a tree branch. One of the other participants attested [*5] that he checked the saddle after the fall and it was not loose. Defendants argued that Bret’s injuries were not the result of defendants’ negligence, but of “the inherent risk of equine activity,” his own lack of experience, and his failure to follow Ridge’s instructions.

The trial court indicated that there was no question that plaintiffs’ allegations related to securing the saddle and instructing the participants only amounted to negligence. With respect to the allegation that the horses were made to run off at a high rate of speed, defendants continued to contend that there was no question of fact because Ridge and the other experienced participants stated that they began to trot, and the only people who said the horses began to run were plaintiffs, who had little or no riding experience. Plaintiffs responded that the differing accounts meant that there was a factual dispute, thereby precluding summary disposition. The court concluded that, given plaintiffs’ lack of experience compared with the experienced opinions of the guide and other participants, there was no genuine issue of fact that the horses were trotting not running. The court then concluded that even if it were a high [*6] speed run, reasonable minds could not differ that defendants’ conduct did not amount to gross negligence. Accordingly, the court granted defendants summary disposition.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Plaintiffs now argue that the trial court erred in granting defendants summary disposition on the issue of gross negligence. We agree. [HN1] This Court reviews de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition. Spiek v Dep’t of Transportation, 456 Mich. 331, 337; 572 N.W.2d 201 (1998).

[HN2] Under MCR 2.116(C)(7), a party may move for dismissal of a claim on the ground that a claim is barred because of a release. Neither party is required to file supportive material. Maiden v Rozwood, 461 Mich. 109, 119; 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999). Any documentation that is provided to the court, however, must be admissible evidence and must be considered by the court. MCR 2.116(G)(5). The plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other admissible documentary evidence must be accepted as true and construed in the plaintiff’s favor, unless contradicted by documentation submitted by the movant. [*7] Maiden, supra at 119. [HN3] Under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a party may move for dismissal of a claim on the ground that there is no genuine issue with respect to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment or partial judgment as a matter of law. The motion tests the factual support for a claim, and when reviewing the motion, the court must consider all the documentary evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 119; see also MCR 2.116(G)(4).

III. ANALYSIS

As an initial matter, [HN4] plaintiffs’ testimony was admissible because it was based on their personal observations and perceptions. MRE 602. To the extent that plaintiffs’ testimony merely amounted to opinion, such testimony would nevertheless be admissible evidence. MRE 701. “MRE 701 allows opinion testimony by a lay witness as long as the opinion is rationally based on the perception of the witness and helpful to a clear understanding of his testimony or a fact in issue.” Sells v Monroe Co, 158 Mich. App. 637, 644-645;405 N.W.2d 387 (1987). “Once a witness’s opportunity to observe is demonstrated, [*8] the opinion is admissible in the discretion of the trial court, and the weight to be accorded the testimony is for the jury to decide.” Id. at 646-647. Moreover, laypersons are permitted to testify regarding speed. Mitchell v Steward Oldford & Sons, Inc, 163 Mich. App. 622, 629-630;415 N.W.2d 224 (1987). Therefore, [HN5] that plaintiffs lacked experience with horses merely goes to the weight of their testimony not to its admissibility.

The concept of gross negligence has developed in recent years, evolving from its common law roots. The common-law rule was originally invoked in Gibbard v Cursan, 225 Mich 311; 196 NW 398 (1923), to “circumvent the harsh rule of contributory negligence[,]” which at the time would have barred the plaintiff’s recovery. Jennings v Southwood, 446 Mich. 125, 129; 521 N.W.2d 230 (1994). The Gibbard definition was not crafted to be a higher degree of negligence; rather, it was simply “mere[] ordinary negligence of the defendant that followed from the negligence of the plaintiff.” Id. at 130. In actuality it was really just “the doctrine of last clear chance [*9] in disguise.” Id. at 132. Noting that such a construction was no longer viable after abandonment of the doctrine of contributory negligence in favor of pure comparative negligence and because it was not in keeping with the Legislature’s intent of limiting liability in certain contexts, the Jennings Court renounced further application of the Gibbard gross negligence definition. Id. at 132, 135

[HN6] Presented with the potentially arduous task of constructing a new definition of gross negligence in the context of the emergency medical services act (EMSA), MCL 333.20901 et seq., 1 the Jennings Court simply borrowed language from the government tort liability act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401 et seq. Jennings, supra at 135-136. The Court reasoned that the short cut was permissible given that the two statutory schemes shared the same purpose of insulating certain employees from liability for ordinary negligence. Id. at 136-137. Thus, the Court stated that in the context of the EMSA, gross negligence should be defined as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Id. at 136; [*10] see MCL 691.1407(7)(a).

1 MCL 333.20965(1) states:

Unless an act or omission is the result of gross negligence . . ., the acts or omissions of a medical first responder, emergency medical technician, [etc.,] . . . do not impose liability in the treatment of a patient on those individuals or any of the following persons. . . .

Subsequently, the definition has been employed in other Michigan statutes limiting liability for ordinary negligence while still allowing liability for gross negligence. Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 N.W.2d 166 (2003). [HN7] The GTLA definition of gross negligence adopted in Jennings, arises in statutory contexts where there is a public policy rationale for limiting certain parties’ liability while still affording the public recourse when the parties’ conduct rises to the level of recklessness described in the definition. See id. (citing various examples of statutes using the same definition [*11] of gross negligence). Noting that a contractual waiver of liability can similarly serve to insulate against ordinary negligence but not gross negligence, this Court expanded the scope of application of the Jennings/GTLA gross negligence definition, likewise adopting the definition to address a claim of gross negligence where the decedent signed a waiver purporting to release a privately-owned fitness center from liability. Id. The Xu Court concluded that summary disposition for the defendant was proper where, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, reasonable minds could not differ that the defendant’s mere ignorance of industry safety standards did not constitute conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted to the decedent. Id. at 270-271. [HN8] “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.” Id. at 271.

Here, plaintiffs executed a release and indemnification waiver, in accordance with § 6 of the EALA. MCL 691.1666. By signing the release, plaintiffs agreed that because plaintiffs were participants in an equine [*12] activity defendants were not liable for plaintiffs’ injury or death resulting from an inherent risk of the equine activity. MCL 691.1666(3); MCL 691.1663. “Inherent risk of an equine activity” is defined by the EALA as:

[HN9] a danger or condition that is an integral part of an equine activity, including, but not limited to, any of the following:

(i) An equine’s propensity to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to a person on or around it.

(ii) The unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to things such as sounds, sudden movement, and people, other animals, or unfamiliar objects.

(iii) A hazard such as a surface or subsurface condition.

(iv) Colliding with another equine or object. [MCL 691.1662(f).]

However, [HN10] the EALA provides exceptions to this general immunity for certain acts, including negligence on the part of the equine professional. 2 Thus, solely applying the EALA, plaintiffs’ claims of negligence and, by implication, gross negligence, would not be barred.

2 MCL 691.1665 states:

[HN11] Section 3 does not prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or another person if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or other person does any of the following:

(a) Provides equipment or tack and knows or should know that the equipment or tack is faulty, and the equipment or tack is faulty to the extent that it is a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.

(b) Provides an equine and fails to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity and to determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular equine. A person shall not rely upon a participant’s representations of his or her ability unless these representations are supported by reasonably sufficient detail.

(c) Owns, leases, rents, has authorized use of, or otherwise is in lawful possession and control of land or facilities on which the participant sustained injury because of a dangerous latent condition of the land or facilities that is known to the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or other person and for which warning signs are not conspicuously posted.

(d) Commits a negligent act or omission that constitutes a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.

[*13] However, the release that plaintiffs signed specifically relieved defendants of liability for negligence, and they were bound to the terms as agreed. Thus, in the face of a contractual waiver of liability insulating defendants against ordinary negligence, the trial court properly focused on whether defendants’ conduct constituted gross negligence. See Xu, supra at 269. Accordingly, following the precedent set by Xu, in addressing this claim of gross negligence, we consider “whether reasonable minds could differ regarding whether defendants’ conduct was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.” Xu, supra at 269. Accord Jennings, supra at 130.

[HN12] “Generally, once a standard of conduct is established, the reasonableness of an actor’s conduct under the standard is a question for the factfinder, not the court.” Tallman v Markstrom, 180 Mich. App. 141, 144; 446 N.W.2d 618 (1989). “However, if, on the basis of the evidence presented, reasonable minds could not differ, then the motion for summary disposition should be granted.” Vermilya v Dunham, 195 Mich. App. 79, 83; [*14] 489 N.W.2d 496 (1992). . . . These established precedents form the boundaries of our review. Accordingly, our task is to review the facts, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine the appropriateness of summary disposition in favor of the defendant. [Jackson v Saginaw Co, 458 Mich. 141, 146-147; 580 N.W.2d 870 (1998).]

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, it should be accepted as true that after asking the trail ride participants if they wanted to speed up a little bit, Ridge then bolted into a high-speed run – or at the very least, a ride that was too fast given plaintiffs’ lack of experience. While the trial court concluded that Ridge’s conduct “would not be gross negligence even if it were a high speed run,” we disagree. We conclude that viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether her conduct of taking a totally inexperienced rider on a fast ride was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.

In his dissent, our colleague Judge Murray emphasizes that the trail guide [*15] placed plaintiff (1) on a safe horse; (2) tightened the saddle; (3) provided safety instructions; (4) started slowly; and (5) sped up only after all riders including plaintiff agreed. We agree that the first four points referenced above appear reasonable. However, in our collective opinion, our point of departure from our esteemed colleague’s dissenting opinion is the trail guide’s decision to speed up the pace when plaintiff had never ridden a horse before. For a first time rider, yelling “Whoa Nellie” or in this instance, “Whoa Tye” hoping to slow the horse down or to obtain the trail guide’s attention for help could be difficult. Here, reasonable minds could indeed differ as to whether the conduct of the trail guide rose to the level of recklessness required to establish gross negligence. The question of whether the trail guide in this case demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted is a question of fact upon which reasonable minds could differ. Therefore, it is appropriate for a jury to make this determination.

By participating in the horseback ride, plaintiffs agreed to undertake the inherent risk of an equine activity. But, absent some unexpected [*16] event, Ridge was in control of the horses’ speed, as the guide riding the lead horse. And Bret’s horse “bolted” not because it was scared, which would clearly be an inherent risk of an equine activity, but because it was following Ridge’s lead. It cannot be disputed that she made the conscious decision to “speed things up a little bit,” knowing that Bret lacked the requisite experience to control the animal on which he rode. It would seem that it was indisputably an important part of Ridge’s job to look after the safety of those placed in her care. And asking an inexperienced horseback rider whether he objected to such a ride cannot insulate her conduct.

[HN13] Horseback riding, an activity in which people are exposed to all the inherent risks of dealing with an animal’s individual propensities and unpredictable nature, is a dangerous activity in and of itself. See MCL 691.1662(f). A reasonable person could conclude that Ridge’s conduct of taking plaintiffs on a fast ride given their known lack of experience unreasonably added to the risks of the already dangerous activity and was thus so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an [*17] injury resulted. Therefore, summary disposition in this case was not appropriate.

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

/s/ Patrick M. Meter

/s/ Bill Schuette

DISSENT BY: MURRAY

DISSENT

MURRAY, J. (dissenting).

With great respect to my esteemed colleagues, I dissent from their decision to reverse the trial court’s grant of defendants’ motion for summary disposition.

As the majority correctly observes, in reviewing the propriety of granting defendants’ motion under MCR 2.116(C)(10), we, like the trial court, must view the admissible evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, the non-moving parties. MCR 2.116(G)(4); Maiden v Rozwood,461 Mich. 109, 119; 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999). With the material facts viewed in that manner, we must then determine whether reasonable minds could differ as to whether the conduct at issue was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result. Xu v Gay, 257 Mich. App. 263, 270-271; 668 N.W.2d 166 (2003).

Where I depart from [*18] my colleagues is my conclusion that this evidence, under this standard, does not arise to the recklessness required to establish gross negligence. The material facts, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, established that the following events occurred at Ranch Rudolph:

1. Plaintiff Bret Hawkins (hereafter “plaintiff”), signed the waiver of liability, and informed the trail guide that he had never ridden a horse;

2. In response, the trail guide put plaintiff on the most cautious horse available, one usually utilized with children;

3. Once atop the horse, plaintiff informed the trail guide that his saddle was loose. The trail guide responded by attempting to tighten the saddle;

4. Before commencing the ride, the trail guide visually and orally instructed all the participants as to how to properly ride and handle the horse;

5. Once the trail ride commenced, the guide and all riders proceeded “extremely slow”;

6. Eventually, the trail guide asked the riders if they wanted to “go a little faster,” to which the group responded “yes”;

7. Before picking up the pace, the trail guide told the riders that they should yell if anyone wanted to [*19] slow down;

8. The trail guide, and all other horses, started on a “high speed run,” and less than a minute later, plaintiff was injured.

These material facts, taken from plaintiffs’ affidavits, answers to interrogatories and photos, do not establish that the trail guide acted so recklessly that she exhibited a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result. Rather, the evidence shows that, in response to plaintiff’s concerns, she (1) placed him on the safest possible horse; (2) attempted to further tighten the saddle; (3) instructed the riders on safety and riding procedures; (4) started the ride off “extremely slow;” and (5) sped up only after the riders – including plaintiffs – agreed to do so. Hence, the act at issue 1 was the trail guide’s decision to go too fast for plaintiff to handle, but not all the others, including his wife, who last rode a horse at age eleven. This misjudgment may have been a negligent one, but it did not reveal a recklessness with regard to plaintiff’s safety. Maiden, supra at 122-123(ordinary negligence does not amount to gross negligence). All the evidence of precautions taken, in fact, precludes reasonable [*20] jurors from so concluding. See, e.g., Lindberg v Livonia Public Schools, 219 Mich. App. 364, 368-369; 556 N.W.2d 509 (1996). 2

1 Plaintiff also complains about the trail guide’s inability to properly tighten the saddle. However, in my view, this is no more than an allegation of negligence, because there is no dispute that the trail guide attempted to tighten the saddle, but at best was unsuccessful in doing so.

2 As the trial court correctly observed, there seems to be a varying degree of decisions under this standard of liability. In my view, this results not from any inconsistency in determining the standard itself, but instead arises from the natural difference resulting from each judge’s own objective determination of whether the evidence meets that standard. Because judges do not always agree on the legal impact of the same undisputed set of facts, our decisions will at times necessarily result in different opinions.

I would affirm the trial court’s order.

/s/ [*21] Christopher M. Murray


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Summer camp being sued for injury from falling off horse wins lawsuit because the plaintiff failed to find an expert to prove their case.

Failure of the plaintiff to find an expert witness in a case requiring an expert results in dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint.

Ellis v. Y.M.C.A. Camp Mohawk, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110403

State: Connecticut, United States District Court for the District of Connecticut

Plaintiff: Louisa R. Ellis, PPA Elizabeth Ellis and Elizabeth Ellis

Defendant: Y.M.C.A. Camp Mohawk, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and consequential damages

Defendant Defenses: Plaintiff cannot prove their case because they do not have an expert witness qualified to prove their claims.

Holding: Plaintiff

Year: 2014

The plaintiff attended the day camp of the defendants. One of the activities was horseback riding. For one of various reasons, the plaintiff was given a pony to ride rather than a horse. While riding the horse, the plaintiff fell over the shoulder or head of the horse suffering injuries.

The plaintiff sued for negligence and consequential damages (which is slightly confusing). The plaintiff hired an expert witness to prove their case that had no qualifications as a horse expert. The plaintiff’s expert was then disqualified. Because under Connecticut law, an expert witness was needed to prove the plaintiff’s case, the case was dismissed. The plaintiff appealed.

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

The court first looked at what an expert witness is and when a case requires an expert witness. An expert witness is a person that is qualified to prove testimony as an expert because of their knowledge, skill, experience, training or education. “…the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge [must] help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.”

The plaintiff’s expert had no “education, training, or experience related to horseback riding. In fact, there is no mention of “horses” or “horseback riding” anywhere in his curriculum vitae.” His work experience also provided no background in horses or horseback riding. Consequently, the plaintiff’s expert was not qualified to be an expert witness.

The next issue was whether or not an expert was needed to prove the case.

Thus, the issue the court must resolve is whether the answers to the questions presented by the allegations of negligence in the plaintiffs’ complaint are beyond the ordinary understanding, knowledge, or experience of the average judge or juror.

The court then looked at whether the average jury would know enough about horses to understand the case. This court looked at a prior ruling on the subject:

The court observed that “[w]e are well into the age of the automobile, and the general public in the twenty-first century is not generally as acquainted with horsemanship as it arguably was at the beginning of the twentieth century.” Therefore, the court concluded; it was necessary “for the plaintiffs to produce expert testimony to establish both the standard of care to which the defendant was to be held and a breach of that standard.”

The court reached this conclusion. “The services being provided by the defendant, i.e. horseback riding lessons to minor children, are specialized and beyond the ordinary understanding, knowledge and experience of jurors.”

Because the plaintiff did not have an expert witness, the plaintiff was unable to prove their case. The court upheld the dismissal of the case.

So Now What?

This is an extremely rare decision, in fact, the first I have ever read. It is paramount that if you are involved in litigation, you assist your defense attorney in finding the best expert witness you can for your case. That means two things.

1.                  The expert has the necessary qualifications to be an expert.

2.                The expert has the ability to convey their opinion to the jury in a way the jury will understand.

You can have the most qualified person in the world as your expert but if he or she is unable to convey the message in a way the jury will understand you may still lose your case.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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