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Equine Legal Summary Spring 2015

Catanese & Wells, A Law Corporation provides a quarterly newsletter to the equine industry of and concerning legal, tax and business issues for participants in the horse business or sport.www.cataneselaw.com.

This issue of the Equine Legal Summary focuses on the defense of assumption of risk in the state of California. Other states have enacted equine activity liability acts. Generally, these statutes address liability issues involving horse activities. California is only one of four states that have not adopted an equine activity liability act (the other states are New York, Maryland and Nevada). Since California has not enacted an equine activity liability act the courts look to the doctrine of assumption of risk when a defendant raises this as a defense to a plaintiff’s claim.

California appellate courts have defined horses as inherently dangerous. See Guido v. Koopman (1991) 1 Cal. App.4th 837, 842. This includes horseback riding and the knowledge of the inherent risk that people are regularly thrown off horses during any equine riding activity. If a person is injured in connection with horse riding activities, whether for pleasure or for business such as horse racing, the court first determines whether a duty exists between the plaintiff and the defendant. If no duty exists the plaintiff will have no liability to the defendant for any injuries suffered by the defendant by reason of the horse riding activity which caused the injury. Notwithstanding this general rule, there are exceptions.

If a defendant acts intentionally or with gross negligence in such cases the court may reject any assumption of risk defense. In addition, if a trainer causes a student’s injury and if the trainer acted “totally outside the range of the ordinary activity” involved in teaching or coaching the equine sport (such as jumping), then, the court may disregard the assumption of risk defense. These doctrines have been incorporated into law by the California Supreme Court. See Kahn v. East Side Union High School District (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 1011.

The assumption of risk defense arises in two contexts, the first is deemed express assumption of risk and the second is deemed primary assumption of risk. An express assumption of risk arises when a written waiver or release is used in the activity. An example would include a trainer asking for a signed release agreement from a student prior to instructing the student in riding lessons. So long as the written agreement was not procured by fraud and where the agreement is clear, unambiguous and explicit in expressing the intent of the trainer and the rider (or the parties) the court will normally enforce the release which eliminates the liability of the defendant. A recent appellate case addressed the assumption of risk doctrine in the equine context. See Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708. The second context is the primary assumption of risk. The primary assumption of risk doctrine eliminates a duty between the plaintiff and the defendant where the plaintiff is injured while participating in a dangerous sport such as horseback riding or horse sporting events. See Levinson v. Owens (2009) 176 Cal.App.4th 1534, 1545-1546. Again, the trial court will review the facts to determine if the defendant acted intentionally to cause injury to the plaintiff or acted recklessly in the facts and circumstances in the case. In short, a defendant has no legal duty to eliminate or protect a plaintiff from risk inherent to the equine sport itself, but the defendant must use due care not to increase the risk to the participant over and above those inherent in the sport. (The California Supreme Court issued another case in 1992 which clarifies all of these rules. See Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296.)

In conclusion, if you are engaged in equine activities as a rider, a trainer, a casual participant or a committed participant, take care to understand your rights and your responsibilities to the other party. Most importantly, if you are providing services such as riding lessons or boarding of horses use a written release of liability and waiver before you begin a relationship with another person involving these activities. On the other hand, if you are the person asked to sign the written waiver and release be sure to carefully read the contract and be sure you understand the rights you are waiving against the other person before you begin the equine related activity.

For further questions regarding the doctrine of assumption of risk or any other equine legal issue feel free to contact our offices.