Coach of Youth Equestrian Rider Escapes Liability in Wrongful Death Case (CA)

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Eriksson v. Nunnink (California)

In 2006, a 17-year old girl was killed while riding a horse in competition in California.  The parents of the decedent sued for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress, alleging that the horse was “unfit to ride because of prior falls and lack of practice.”  After the plaintiffs presented evidence at trial, the trial court granted defendant’s motion for entry of judgment, which the plaintiffs appealed.  The Court of Appeal held that the minor waiver and release agreement signed by the decedent and her mother prior to decedent’s participation in the competition was enforceable as a liability defense to the wrongful death claim.  Although a minor can “disaffirm” a written contract, the terms of the waiver and release agreement became “irrevocable and binding” under California caselaw when the agreement was signed by the minor’s parent.

However, the waiver and release agreement did not bar the mother’s direct claim (i.e., the mother’s emotional distress claim was not derivative of the rights of the decedent) or the father’s direct claim (i.e., he did not sign the agreement), but the Court further ruled that the defendant coach did not owe a duty of care to the decedent’s parents for purposes of their emotional distress claims.  The Court also noted that plaintiffs’ had the burden to show that there was gross negligence on the part of the decedent’s coach, but has failed to present evidence of such.

It is noted that there was a prior trial court ruling in favor of the defendant coach on a motion for summary judgment in this case back in 2011.  The trial court ruling in that instance was based on primary assumption of the risk (i.e., the defendant coach did not owe a duty to protect the minor rider from the risks inherent in the horse riding competition).  However, the plaintiffs appealed the decision, and the Court of Appeal reversed the ruling, finding that the coach owed a duty of care not to increase the risks inherent in the sport by allowing the minor to ride an unfit horse.  That court also ruled that a fact issues existed as to whether the horse was fit, whether the coach knew about the unfitness, and whether the coach’s acts could equate to gross negligence precluding reliance on the waiver and release release agreement that was signed.  The case then proceeded to trial.  After the presentation of the plaintiffs’ case in chief, the trial court then granted the coach’s motion to entry of judgment, which the plaintiffs appealed leading to the recent decision noted above.

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