In a recent case before the California Court of Appeal, the court addressed the liability of the proprietors of a horseback riding ranch for an accident involving a rider and a known “bad” horse. In assessing the duty owed by the ranch owners, the court reviewed case law concerning assumption of risk and the distinct liability based on the role a specific defendant plays when an accident takes place in a recreational activity.
In this case, plaintiff June Carter was an experienced equestrienne who had just ridden a horse named IB Brilliant out of an arena at Secret Valley Farm. The Farm is a horse facility owned and operated by defendants Gerald and Anita Heitzler. Colton, a horse known to be dangerous and unpredictable, ran into the metal fence that surrounded the Farm. Ms. Carter was still astride IB Brilliant, who got spooked and threw her off. Ms. Carter alleged that the defendants negligently managed or entrusted the errant horse, and that they failed to warn her or take precautions in the use of the horse.
The Heitzlers submitted the depositions of Ms. Carter and her trainer in support of their motion for summary judgment. They submitted evidence showing that Ms. Carter was aware of Colton’s behavior. But the trial court found that the nature of Colton’s demeanor was not a material fact because Ms. Carter’s situation during the accident was within the risks inherent to horseback riding. Colton’s nature as unstable or high strung was part of the sport.
On appeal, the court stated that California law requires each person to exercise reasonable care towards others under the circumstances. Assumption of risk is a doctrine that includes both primary assumption of risk and secondary assumption of risk. Through primary assumption of risk, a defendant is absolved from any duty regarding recreational activities to protect a plaintiff from the inherent risks of an activity. Secondary assumption of risk applies in a similar manner to comparative negligence, when a duty has been breached.
The court stated the law concerning liability for a defendant proprietor, such as the Heitzlers. As proprietors, the Heitzlers have a duty not to increase the risk inherent to the recreational activity of horseback riding. This duty is limited to not changing the nature of the activity. But proprietors do not have a duty to reduce inherent risks.
Here, Ms. Carter sought to hold the Heitzlers accountable for increasing the risks inherent in horseback riding, due to allowing the “bad” horse Colton to be ridden. The court stated that Ms. Carter did not identify precautions the Heitzlers could have taken, other than prohibiting Colton to be ridden.
The appellate court stated the risk of one horse spooking another horse by crashing into a fence is inherent in horseback riding. Ms. Carter’s focus on the fact that Colton should not have been ridden would in fact expand the duty of the Heitzlers as proprietors, with the result of chilling the vigorous engagement of other participants in horseback riding. The court concluded that the Heitzlers did not have a duty to reduce the inherent risk posed by Colton’s behavior, including fence-crashing and spooking other horses.
The court affirmed the summary judgment motion in favor of the Heitzlers.
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California Supreme Court Reverses Judgment for City Because Plaintiff Need Not Prove Dangerous Condition Caused Third-Party Conduct, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, November 20, 2015