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Home / Featured / Negligence trumps immunity in horse-injury suit

Negligence trumps immunity in horse-injury suit

The Court of Appeals Western District on Nov. 26 upheld a $280,000 judgment for a woman injured at a horse racetrack, despite a statutory immunity provision aimed at equine activities.

Heather Rosales was injured at the Benjamin Equestrian Center in Belton when a rearing horse fell on her. Benjamin had argued that it was protected by the Equine Activities Liability Act, which state lawmakers passed in 1994 to bar suits arising from the “inherent risks” of horse-riding and other equine activities.

The Western District, however, said the law includes several exceptions, including for cases in which the defendant is negligent, which Rosales had alleged. The court said the statute’s exception is clear.

“Section 537.325 extends immunity to equine activity sponsors for injuries caused by the inherent risks of equine activities — that is, risks equine activity sponsors do not create or cannot reasonably control,” Judge Cynthia L. Martin wrote for the court. “Section 537.325 does not extend immunity, however, for injuries caused by risks an equine activity sponsor creates, enhances, or can reasonably control.”

Kevin Weakley of Wallace Saunders in Overland Park, Kansas, said the defendant was still considering its options for appealing the case further and declined to comment on the ruling.

In its brief, the equestrian center’s argued that such an exception would “eviscerate” the immunity provision. But Leah M. Mason of Edelman & Thompson in Kansas City, Rosales’ attorney, said the statute still protects against the unpredictable nature of horses.

“It’s designed to protect equine activity sponsors from things with inherent risks, not things with higher risks because of the negligence of the equine sponsor,” she said.

The 2015 incident occurred when Rosales attended a horse-racing event at the Benjamin racetrack. She accompanied a family friend through an unmonitored open gate into an area where racehorses were being unloaded from trailers. As Rosales watched the scene, a horse being brushed reared up and fell on her, breaking her pelvis. In September 2018, a Cass County jury awarded $350,000 but found Rosales to be 20 percent at fault.

The case appears to be one of the few appellate decisions to discuss the Equine Activities Liability Act. The Western District previously addressed the law in a 2004 opinion, Frank v. Mathews, in which a novice rider was injured in a fall from a horse during a lesson. The trial court initially ruled in favor of the defendant, but the Western District allowed the case to proceed, as the plaintiff alleged she’d been given a riding crop and instructed to tap the horse’s neck, causing it to bolt. The appeals court said the defendant’s alleged negligence made the difference.

“For example, if the Instructor carelessly chose to fire a large-caliber firearm into the air while near the horse, it could hardly be said that the sudden bolting of the horse is an inherent risk of equine activity, thereby shielding the Instructor from liability for any resulting injury,” the court said at the time.

Rosales’ case also featured negligence claims, the court said, in that racetrack officials allegedly failed to keep her out of the dangerous area.

“It is obvious that negligently permitting people to access and remain in the horse unloading area, near an inherent risk, necessarily enhances that inherent risk,” Martin wrote. Judges Edward R. Ardini Jr. and Mark D. Pfeiffer concurred.

Benjamin argued that it had tried to keep spectators out of the unloading area — including by posting a sign warning that the racetrack “is not liable for an injury to or the death of a participant in equine activities resulting from the inherent risks” of those activities. The presence, size and wording of the warning sign are specifically required by section 537.325.

Judge R. Michael Wagner had barred its introduction at trial, however, because the wording tracks the language of the statute and says it is “pursuant to the Revised Statutes of Missouri.” Jurors generally are not permitted to review statutory language themselves.

The Western District affirmed that decision, saying Benjamin wasn’t prejudiced because it didn’t stop the track from arguing for immunity. The signage requirements, Martin wrote, “are a free-standing statutory obligation imposed on equine activity sponsors that is not tethered in any way to the immunity” provisions listed in a different subsection of the same law. The court also said Rosales had argued that the track was negligent, not that it had failed to comply with the requirement to post a sign.

The trial court did permit jurors to see a Spanish version of the sign, as it didn’t repeat or refer to the statute. According to the track’s brief, Rosales understood enough Spanish that she knew the unloading area was restricted.

“Obviously, the jury believed that Rosales was in part at fault for her injuries, as it attributed twenty percent of the fault to Rosales,” Martin wrote in a footnote.

Benjamin had argued that Rosales became a “participant,” rather than a spectator, once she entered the unloading area. Mason said that distinction didn’t really matter.

“If she’s not a participant, then the statute doesn’t apply, and you go to common-law negligence,” she said. “If the statute does apply, you still end up with negligence.”

The case is Rosales v. Benjamin Equestrian Center LLC, WD82485.