Fenced Off


Goettsch v. El Capitan Stadium Association (California-NOT PUBLISHED)
(Tied Up “Green” Horse at Rodeo Pulls Rope and Severs Spectators Fingers; Duty of Care Owed)

The plaintiff attended a rodeo. He was standing next to a chain link fence surrounding a warm up area on the defendant’s property. A “green” horse (i.e. a horse that has had little education and exposure to activities and events) was tied to the fence. Plaintiff placed his hands on the chain link fence. The horse pulled back from the fence and the plaintiff’s hand became entangled in the horse’s rope. Four of his fingers were severed from his hands. The plaintiff filed a complaint alleging negligence based upon a dangerous condition on the premises. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that liability was precluded by primary assumption of the risk, and that it did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care because the condition encountered was open and obvious.  The court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the court explained that under California law, owners and operators of sports facilities owe a duty of care to their patrons not to design or operate facilities in a manner that increases the risk of harm to patrons beyond that inherent in the sport.  The court also recognized that facility operators owed a duty of care to spectators that attended the events.

While the court agreed that it was common knowledge common knowledge that horses can become frightened and sacred in certain circumstances, it determined that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine could not be applied to protect the defendant under the circumstances.  The doctrine could be applied to the sport of rodeo, and the plaintiff was a spectator at the event.  However, the defendant presented no evidence to indicate that tying unattended horses to a chain link fence was fundamental to the sport of rodeo, or that allowing horses to be tied to a chain link fence was a condition or conduct that was an integral part of the sport itself.  The defendant was not relieved of its duty to use due care to eliminate dangerous conditions on its property.  Nor did the defendant present evidence that vigorous participation in rodeos would be chilled by imposing liability.  Indeed, the court noted that the defendant had posted a sign prohibiting attendees from tying horses to the fence, although it did not enforce that policy.

The defendant attempted to argue that the relevant risk of harm was the presence and use of horses at rodeos, not the act of tying horses to fences.  However, the court disagreed.  The court explained that the inherent risk of harm associated with the performance of a sport does not insulate the provider of facilities for the sport from any potential liability associated with the performance of that sport.

Referring to ample case law regarding the duty of care owed by baseball teams to spectators, the defendant argued that it satisfied its duty of care to plaintiff (as a spectator) by providing seating located away from the chain link fence.  However, the court disagreed with the analogy.

With regard to the defendant’s argument that the dangerous condition was open and obvious such that it did not owe plaintiff a duty of care, the court explained that the obvious danger doctrine is a form of secondary assumption of the risk, which was a factual determination of comparative fault.  Nonetheless, the court stated that the defendant failed to present any evidence which indicated that the danger encountered was open and obvious.

The lower court’s ruling was overturned and the judgment was reversed.

NOTE: The plaintiff’s status of a spectator rather than an active participant is clearly a key factor in this determination.

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