Oct. 2, 2018 – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled that two horseback riders injured while riding in Wisconsin cannot sue for negligence because of Wisconsin’s equine immunity statute, which recognizes the inherent risk involved.
Wis. Stat. section 895.481(2), “a person, including an equine activity sponsor or an equine professional, is immune from civil liability for acts or omissions related to his or her participation in equine activities if a person participating in the equine activity is injured or killed as the result of an inherent risk of equine activities.”
There are exceptions. Riding facilities could still be liable for negligence if someone is injured or killed because of faulty equipment, provides a horse and does not adequately assess a person’s riding ability, or does not post warnings of dangerous trail conditions.
None of those exceptions applied in the cases of Judy Dilley and Abigail Brown, who were both injured while horseback riding at separate stables in Rhinelander and Monroe, according to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
The cases were consolidated, and in Dilley v. Holiday Acres Properties Inc., Nos. 17-2485 & 17-2970 (Sep. 25, 2018), a three-judge panel affirmed.
Immunity Applies in Dilley’s Case
In 2015, Dilley, an Illinois resident, reserved a horseback riding session at the Holiday Stables in Rhinelander. She told the guides that she had no riding experience, and they assigned her the most docile horse of the lot, Blue, usually assigned to children.
Dilley, in her mid-sixties, did not receive any instruction from the guides. The guides did not adjust the stirrups and did not provide a helmet. Into the ride, Dilley raised concern that she did not have hold of the reins, but the guide told her not to worry.
When Blue attempted to pass another horse, it kicked at Blue, prompting Blue to rear up and cause Dilley to fall backward. She sustained a head injury, fractured her ribs and vertebrae, and punctured a lung. Dilley ultimately sued for negligence.
Holiday Acres Properties, which owned the land hosting Holiday Stables, successfully moved for summary judgment under the equine immunity statute. On appeal, Dilley argued that an exception applied because Holiday Stables assigned her to Blue.
Wis. Stat. section 895.481(3)(b) says immunity does not apply if a person “provides 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.”
That is, immunity only applies if an operator reasonably assesses a rider’s ability to safely ride, and has assessed the rider’s ability to manage the horse provided.
But Dilley argued that the exception requires a provider (operator) to make a reasonable effort to “safely manage” the horse, not simply assess the rider’s ability to do so. That is, Dilley said the guides did not make a reasonable effort to manage Blue, Dilley’s horse.
The three-judge panel for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree, noting that Wisconsin state courts have not squarely address that issue of interpretation.
“Without clear or consistent guidance from the intermediate appellate court, we’re on our own in predicting how the Wisconsin Supreme Court would interpret the statute,” wrote Judge Diane Sykes, a former member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
According to Sykes, the text and structure of the equine immunity statute leads to the conclusion that “[i]t does not abrogate immunity for a provider’s negligent management of a horse,” only the provider’s negligent assessment of the rider’s ability to do so.
“It’s undisputed that before the trail ride began, [the guides] specifically determined that Dilley was a beginner,” Judge Sykes wrote. “Dilley does not explain what more they should have done to determine her ability to ride a horse.”
Judge Sykes said the immunity statute did not require a guide to make the assessment based on a riding demonstration, or require a guide to continuously reassess the rider’s ability during the ride, nor did the guide need to give riding instructions to Dilley.
The exception applies, Sykes said, “only when an equine provider fails to make a reasonable effort to determine a rider’s general experience level and assign a horse commensurate with that experience. Nothing like that happened here,” she wrote.
Finally, the panel rejected Dilley’s claim that an exception to immunity applied because the guides allowed her to ride without a helmet, which was a “willful and wanton” disregard for her safety. The panel concluded that Dilley failed to show the horseback riding guides disregarded a strong probably that she would be harmed without a helmet.
Immunity Applies in Brown’s Case
Brown, from Missouri, was injured while riding at Country View Equestrian Center, an indoor riding facility in Monroe. She brought her own horse, Golden Gift.
An instructor was working with Brown and Golden Gift and allowed another horse into the arena, a “high spirited” horse requiring an experienced rider. The second horse was directed to perform a jump, but sped off and bucked, colliding with Golden Gift. Brown sustained multiple leg fractures as a result of the collision, and a lawsuit followed.
Brown raised the exception to the equine immunity statute, which says immunity does not apply if a person “provides an equine to a person” but fails to reasonably assess the person’s ability 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.”
The district judge ruled the exception was inapplicable because Brown was riding her own horse, not one that the riding facility provided to her. The appeals panel affirmed.
“The exception applies only if the defendant ‘provides’ a horse to a rider. Brown brought her own horse, Golden Gift, to Country View and rode him during the lesson,” Judge Sykes wrote. “Brown has pleaded herself out of the exception.”