Monday, July 03, 2006

Gross Negligence Trumps Equine Activity Statute

A couple of recent cases from Michigan involving equine activity statutes point to the creative use of exceptions to the general rule of non liability in states that have an equine activity statute.

In Hawkins v. Ranch Rudolph, Inc., 2005 Mich. App. LEXIS 2366 (Mich. Ct. App. September 27, 2005), two plaintiffs went on a horse ride at a dude ranch and executed the standard release of liability under the state's Equine Activity Liability Act. The plaintiffs selected a ride that was to be rather gentle given that one of the plaintiffs had never ridden a horse before. As the ride progressed, the person conducting the ride urged the riders to go a little faster which they assented to.

At that point the horses bolted and one of the plaintiffs' saddle slipped and he fell and was injured. The trial court granted summary judgment for the dude ranch, and the plaintiffs appealed. The court of appeals found that the issue of whether the conduct of the dude ranch constituted gross negligence and thus escaped the reach of the EALA and the release the plaintiffs admittedly signed was one on which reasonable minds could differ and remanded the case for further proceedings.

In Terrill v. Stacy, 2006 Mich. App. LEXIS 522 (Mich. Ct. App. February 28, 2006), a rider was riding a horse at a dude ranch and the horse bolted, throwing the rider and injuring her. The bit broke, and she alleged that failure to properly inspect the bit proximately caused her injuries. The defendants held up the signed EALA release and moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, not allowing the plaintiff to amend her claim to include gross negligence.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court summary judgment, finding that the release was in the nature of a contract that was ambiguous only if the language was reasonable susceptible to more than one interpretation. Amending the complaint to allege gross negligence would have been futile in the court's view.

The takehome from these cases clearly demonstrates that the courts in Michigan are ready to look at the issue of gross negligence as an exception to the rule of nonliability in the state's Equine Activity Liability Act, if it is properly pleaded.


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