In an unusual personal injury case out of New Jersey, an appeals court rules on whether a stable can be held liable for negligence in assigning a “green” horse to a rider. The 5 1/2 year old horse had been broken to saddle just a few months earlier:
A horse farm owner who fails to carefully match a rider with a mount can be held liable if the rider is thrown, despite a New Jersey statute that generally affords immunity to equine facilities, an appeals court ruled last week.
In a case of first impression, the judges said giving a guest rider a green horse with a propensity to lurch could constitute conduct for which the Equine Activities Act…gives no protection.
The appeals court partially reversed summary judgment and remanded the case…for trial on the issue of negligent assignment.
The suit was lodged by Barbara Stoffels, who in April 2003 e-mailed a reply to an advertisement by Barbara Cammeyer, owner of Freehold, N.J.’s Harmony Hill Farm, inviting the public to ride for free to give her horses exercise. Stoffels, then 62, retired and arthritic, said she had 30 years of riding experience.
…After a half hour of riding without incident, Stoffels was attempting to turn left around a stump at the bottom of a ravine when the horse suddenly bucked three times, causing her to fall off and suffer injuries that required surgery.
Stoffels‘ suit charged that Cammeyer was negligent by providing her an untrained horse, not advising the horse was green and failing to inquire adequately about her riding experience in order to choose a suitable mount.
Appellate Judges Mary Catherine Cuff, Jose Fuentes and Carmen Messano agreed with the motion judge that Cammeyer was justified in believing that Stoffels was not a novice rider and affirmed dismissal of the claim Cammeyer failed to take experience into account.
However, the panel found issues on which a jury could find liability. For one, Cammeyer was not completely forthcoming about the training history of Glory, even after Stoffels expressed concerns about the horse’s size. For another, Stoffels‘ expert witness proffered testimony that Glory was a young horse and had demonstrated a propensity to lurch before Cammeyer bought it and that Cammeyer had a limited opportunity to assess the horse before assigning it to Stoffels.
One exception [in the Act] is for failure to “make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the participant’s ability to safely manage the particular equine animal, based on the participant’s representation of his ability.” Another is for “[a]n act or omission … that constitutes negligent disregard for the participant’s safety, which act or omission causes the injury.”
Cuff wrote that the failure to take reasonable measures to match the rider to a suitable mount could lead a jury to find conduct fitting those exceptions. “Here, we are not satisfied that defendant’s conduct in assigning Glory to plaintiff is so one-sided that a reasonable jury would not find her negligent,” Cuff concluded.