Eriksson v. Nunnink – Equine Injuries Compensable Under Limited Circumstances

Horses are beautiful, stoic creatures to which many people are understandably drawn. However, they can also, by virtue of their size and nature, be very dangerous animals. In some cases, contact with horses or involvement in equestrian activities can result in serious injury or death – even in a fairly organized setting.
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Succeeding on a claim of liability for horse-related injuries in North Carolina is difficult because of the provisions in Chapter 99E of the North Carolina General Statutes. This is also sometimes referred to as the “Equine and Farm Animal Activity Liability Act.”

Basically, the law states owners and sponsors of activities can’t be held liable for injury or death of a participant that results from the inherent risks of horse-related activities. Inherent risks are defined as dangers or conditions deemed an integral part of engaging in equine activity. So if a horse is startled by a sudden movement, sound or activity and kicks you, resulting in injury, that may not be compensable because horses are known to behave unpredictably to such stimuli, so it would be considered an inherent risk.

However, the viability of each case is going to depend on the individual circumstances, and it is worth noting there are a number of exceptions to the immunity for liability of horse owners and activity sponsors. These would include providing equipment or track space they know to be faulty or failing to make reasonable, prudent judgments regarding the ability of the participant to engage safely in the activity and to safely manage the horse. Likewise, an equine professional who commits an act or omission that clearly disregards the safety of participants, that may be grounds for a negligence action.

Our Asheville injury lawyers know each case has to be weighed very carefully before proceeding. The recent wrongful death case of Eriksson v. Nunnink is one example of the possible challenges such cases can present.

Eriksson
was a case out of California, a state with similar equine liability statutes. According to court records, a 17-year-old girl was participating in an equestrian competition when her horse struck a hurdle, causing the girl to fall of her horse and the horse to fall on top of her, causing the girl’s death.

Her parents (plaintiffs) sued the girl’s coach for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. They alleged defendant substantially increased the risk assumed by their daughter by allowing the girl to ride a horse they allege was unfit for riding due to lack of practice and a prior history of falls. Further, they alleged this information was concealed from them prior to the competition.

Trial court granted summary judgment for defendant, an order later reversed by the California Court of Appeals for the Fourth Appellate District. The case went to trial, and after all evidence was heard, the judge granted defense motion for judgment, relying largely on a release of liability the girl signed about six months before the accident.

The girl’s parents asserted that release of liability was ambiguous and at the very least, did not apply to their own claim of infliction of emotional distress.

In reviewing the case on appeal, the appellate court found the release was enforceable as a defense to the wrongful death and infliction of emotional distress claims, so the only way the coach could be liable would be if it was shown the girl’s death was caused by coach’s gross negligence. Unfortunately, for plaintiffs, they failed to reach this proof burden. Therefore, the trial court judgment was upheld.

Because there are unique challenges associated with horse-related injuries, it’s important to only trust your case to a legal team with experience.

Contact our North Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Eriksson v. Nunnink, Jan. 27, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two

More Blog Entries:
Myers v. City of West Plains – Lack of Parental Supervision as Bar to Damage Recovery, Feb. 2, 2015, Asheville Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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