Rockingham, No. 2017-0153, September 21, 2018
- Whether immunity from a suit for injuries resulting from an accident while engaged in equine activities existed.
Plaintiff appealed the Superior Court order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants in which the trial court determined that Defendants were entitled to immunity from liability pursuant to RSA 508:19 (2010) for injuries sustained while horseback riding.
Plaintiff’s daughter, Vaneesa, was thirteen years old and an experienced horseback rider, having ridden for eight years prior to the accident, when she was severely injured at Defendants’ farm. Vaneesa had been receiving weekly lessons at the farm from the co-Defendant, an expert equestrian, and almost weekly went on a “free ride” where she was unsupervised. On one such free ride, where co-Defendant was not at the farm, Vaneesa rode a horse she had ridden twice before without incident, however, as she was trying to dismount Vaneesa fell and was severely injured when the horse stepped on her. Plaintiff sued for damages.
The trial court held that RSA 508:19, which limits the liability of persons engaged in equine activities resulting from the inherent risks of such activities, found that Vaneesa’s injuries resulted from the inherent risk associated with equine activities and thus Defendants were immune from suit.
RSA 508:19 defines “[i]nherent risks of equine activities” as “dangers and conditions which are an integral part of equine activities,” which include a number risks associated with riding horses. The statute further provides that each participant in equine activities expressly assumes the risk associated with participation and the legal responsibility for injury resulting from participation. The immunity of an equine activity sponsor or professional is limited if there is a failure “to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity” or there is a “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant” and that disregard caused the injury.
Plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment by finding (1) there was immunity, (2) Vaneesa’s injuries were the result of the inherent risks of equine activity, and (3) Defendant’s conduct did not come within the exceptions to immunity.
The court noted the statute’s intent, as determined from the legislatures statement of intent and the statute itself, as having a clear purpose to protect individuals engaged in equine activity from claims relating to the inherent risks of participating in equine activity with the participant’s ability to maintain an action for damages under a limited set of circumstances, i.e. the willful and wanton disregard for safety.
Plaintiff argued that because the co-Defendant instructor was not present at the time of the accident, her conduct came within an exception to immunity because the instructor could not make corrective measures such that the equine activity was not within the inherently risky parameter. (RSA 508:19, I(f)(5)) The court rejected the argument because it could only succeed when the participant acted negligently and where that negligence could be foreseen by the instructor. In this case, there was no evidence to suggest Vaneesa acted negligently or that the injury could have been foreseen.
Finally, in considering Plaintiff’s argument that Defendants’ conduct was willful or wanton, the court noted that willful or wanton disregard for safety rises above ordinary negligence. The court found that Defendants’ failure to supervise Vaneesa or enforce the instructor’s rule not to allow minors to ride without adult supervision, did not amount to willful or wanton disregard for Vaneesa’s safety, i.e. that Defendants acted with malicious or unreasonable disregard for safety with indifference as to the consequences. Thus, Defendants’ conduct did not come within the exception to immunity and the suit was properly dismissed.
John D. Colliander and David S. Brown, Colliander & Brown, Portsmouth, for plaintiff; Gary M. Burt, Primmer piper Eggleston & Cramer, Manchester, for defendants.