Short Ride – Minor Child Falls From Horse During Birth Party; Statutory Immunity Applies (AL)

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Estes v. Stepping Stone Farm, LLC (Alabama)

A four year old child attended a birthday party that included equestrian activities.  She fell from a horse during the party and was injured.  Her father filed a lawsuit against the equine center, the center’s owner, and the center’s employees, alleging claims of negligence, wantonness, and negligent failure to train or supervise.  The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment citing the Alabama Equine Activities Liability Protection Act (“Act”), which limits the civil liability of those involved with equine activities as it pertains to risks inherent in the activities.  The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the exception to the Act concerning failure to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity applied.  However, the Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama disagreed.  The Court explained:  “There was no evidence presented indicating that [the child’s] incorrect positioning on the horse was a cause of the accident, and no evidence indicated that [the child’s] riding ability or [the defendant employee’s] alleged failure to assess [the child’s] riding ability were a cause of the accident.”  The evidence showed it was undisputed that the incident occurred because the horse became startled, causing it to react in a sudden and unexpected way, which was an inherent risk of equine activities.

Plaintiff also argued that a “wantonness” exception to the Act applied.  The Court discussed the distinction between negligence and wantonness, noting that wantonness related to a “reckless disregard of the safety of another” and it involved “premeditation, or knowledge and consciousness that injury is likely to result.”  The Court then noted that plaintiff’s own testimony established that the defendants were not trying to get the child off the horse or purposefully trying to injure her.  Thus, the Court concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to show that the defendants had the “requisite conscious mind-set needed to establish a showing of wantonness.”

Finally, plaintiff argued that the defendants were not entitled to the liability protection of the Act because the defendants had failed to provide sufficient warning, did not direct him to observe or read the signs posted at the facility, and did not require him to sign a contract with the requisite warning language from the Act.  However, the Court pointed out that under the Act, the facility need only “place the warning sign in ‘a clearly visible location on or near stables, corrals, or areas where the equine professional or the equine-activity sponsor conducts equine activities.’”  The evidence showed that the sign posted by the defendants met all the requirement of the Act.  Plaintiff contended he did not read the sign, but the defendants were entitled to the immunity whether or not plaintiff appreciated the warning.  The Court also stated that the Act did not mandate that a rider be given a written contract containing the warning language.

In light of the foregoing, the Court affirmed the trial court decision in favor of the defendants.

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