May 1, 2013 – In Ruth Hellen v. Rebecca Hellen, 2012AP1916 (April 25, 2013), the District IV Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment decision from the Rock County Circuit Court, holding that allowing a person to hold a horse’s lead rope is “providing an equine,” within the meaning of Wisconsin’s equine immunity statute, section 895.481. The statute provides immunity from suit for injuries caused by participation in horse riding and other “equine activities” because of the inherent risks involved. The statute also contains exceptions to the immunity. At issue in this case was the exception for a person who “[p]rovides an equine to a person and fails to make a reasonable effort to determine the ability of the person to engage safely in an equine activity or to safely manage the particular equine provided based on the person’s representations of his or her ability.” Wis. Stat. § 895.481(3)(b).
Factual Background and Circuit Court Proceedings
The negligence suit involved Ruth Hellen; her daughter-in-law Rebecca; a horse named Whisper; the horse’s owner, Linney; and Linney’s insurer, American Family Insurance Co. The Court of Appeals concisely described the undisputed facts:
“Rebecca regularly rode horses owned by Linney. On the day Ruth was injured, Ruth accompanied Rebecca to the farm where the horses were kept. As Rebecca prepared to ride Whisper, Rebecca asked Ruth if she wanted to hold Whisper’s lead rope. As Ruth held Whisper’s lead rope, Rebecca began the process of saddling Whisper. As part of that process, Rebecca proceeded to ‘blanket’ Whisper. Whisper apparently moved forward and stepped on one of Ruth’s feet, causing Ruth to lose her balance and fall to the ground. Ruth suffered a fractured hip as a result.
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“Ruth brought a negligence claim against Rebecca, based in part on an allegation that Rebecca handled Whisper at the time of the accident in a manner that presented a danger to Ruth. In addition, Ruth brought a related claim against Linney, based on a theory of respondeat superior. Ruth also named Linney’s insurer, American Family Insurance Company, as a defendant.
“Rebecca moved for summary judgment based on the equine immunity statute. Ruth and Linney moved for summary judgment on the issue of respondeat superior. American Family moved for a declaratory judgment on the issue of insurance coverage.”
Opinion at ¶¶ 4-6. The circuit court granted summary judgment to Rebecca, finding that the equine immunity statute barred a negligence claim by Ruth. In particular, the circuit court found that immunity applied because Rebecca’s conduct – blanketing Whisper in preparation for riding – was “related to … her participation in equine activities.” The circuit court also found that an exception to the immunity statute did not apply because Rebecca had not “provided” an equine to Ruth. Instead, the circuit court determined that Ruth was merely assisting Rebecca, and that Rebecca did not need Ruth’s assistance as she prepared to ride the horse. All other issues – including Linney’s liability under respondeat superior, and whether American Family’s policy provided coverage, were deemed moot.
The Court of Appeals Reverses Summary Judgment
On appeal, Ruth argued that the circuit court had misapplied the statute in two different ways.
First, Ruth argued that Rebecca was not entitled to the protection of the equine immunity statute because Rebecca was not engaged in conduct that was “related to her participation in equine activities.” Ruth argued that the statutory interpretation of “related to” should be narrow, and limited to the specific activities listed in the statute. According to Ruth’s argument, riding a horse was “related to” participation in equine activities because riding is specifically listed as an equine activity in the statute, but blanketing a horse is not listed, and therefore not an activity that is immunized from suit.
The court of appeals found this argument to be a nonstarter. Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Brian Blanchard found that, “even under a narrow reading of ‘related to,’ blanketing a horse in preparation to ride it is plainly related to participation in riding,” since blanketing and saddling the horse was necessary preparation for riding. The court of appeals also relied in part on Barritt v. Lowe, 2003 WI App 185, 266 Wis. 2d 863, 669 N.W.2d 189, in which the parties agreed that the defendant was engaged in conduct “related to” the equine activity of boarding and training, even though the actual conduct at issue was the defendant instructing the plaintiff to retrieve a horse from a pen.
Next, Ruth took back the lead in her second argument, in which she contended that the exception to the immunity statute applied because Rebecca had “provided” Whisper to her, and failed “to make a reasonable effort to determine the ability of the person to engage safely in an equine activity or to safely manage the particular equine provided based on the person’s representations of his or her ability.” Here, the court of appeals relied again on Barritt, in which the term “provides” was interpreted in the context of the equine immunity statute to mean “to make available for use an equine that the provider either owns or controls.” See Barritt, 266 Wis. 2d 863, ¶11. Based on the undisputed record, the court of appeals determined that Rebecca had sufficient control over Whisper to “provide” him to Ruth, and that by holding Whisper’s lead rope, Ruth was engaged in the equine activity of assisting Rebecca to prepare Whisper for riding. Thus, the court of appeals reversed the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment, holding that Rebecca had “provided” Whisper to Ruth for the purposes of the exception to the immunity statute.
The court of appeals remanded the matter to the circuit court with directions to resolve whether Rebecca had made “a reasonable effort to determine the ability of [Ruth] to engage safely in an equine activity.” The circuit court was also instructed to address the issues of respondeat superior and insurance coverage, which it did not reach when it granted summary judgment.