If you don’t like the weather in Kentucky, an old saying goes, wait a few minutes and it will change. The same often is true for court decisions. If you think one court got it wrong, there probably will be another decision from a different court that reaches an opposite conclusion.
A few months ago, I shared an appellate decision in Maine that expanded the conventional idea of "faulty tack" to include a functional, working-order saddle that might have been used in an improper manner. The case involved a child who was injured when the saddle slipped on a pony she was riding. The court concluded that using a fleece-covered girth on a fat pony with withers that might charitably be called less-than-prominent amounted to providing faulty tack, even though neither the saddle nor the girth nor the cover had any physical defects.
The Maine court’s reasoning should get the attention of anyone who relies on a state equine liability statute for protection against personal injury lawsuits. Forty-six states (all except California, Nevada, Maryland, and New York) have statutes that provide a defense for lawsuits arising from inherent risks of participation in equine activities. These statutes also typically include an exception for faulty tack or equipment, however. Being kicked or falling off might be inherent risks of riding; suffering an injury because a stable owner provides broken equipment is not. The definition of faulty tack or equipment can be the difference between winning and losing a costly lawsuit for an equine activity sponsor.
In Hubner v. Spring Valley Equestrian Center, the New Jersey Supreme Court defined faulty equipment in a different way, one that makes more sense than the court in Maine.
One of several family members and friends who wanted to go riding at Spring Valley, Gloria Hubner was injured when the horse she was riding stumbled and fell over cavaletti. The injury occurred during a training session prior to a trail ride. After explaining the basics of steering, starting, and stopping their mounts to the group, an employee directed the riders to walk their horses over a series of poles laid on the ground in a covered arena. While waiting for other riders, Ms. Hubner’s horse turned away from the cavaletti, tossed its head, and started to back up. The horse stumbled over one of the poles and fell. The rider was thrown and was injured when she hit a mounting block.
The trial court dismissed Ms. Hubner’s personal injury lawsuit, reasoning that a horse’s unpredictable behavior in general, or falling over cavaletti in particular, were inherent risks of riding and that the lawsuit was barred by the state equine liability law. The court of appeals reversed, ruling that the statute’s "faulty equipment" exception might apply, not because the cavaletti were broken but because they were used improperly by the riding center employee. The court relied in part on an expert who testified that the poles should have been secured to the ground in some way.
The case made its way to the state supreme court, which agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.
"The statutory exception must refer to equipment that is itself faulty," the court explained. It was undisputed that the cavaletti were in good condition, so the exception did not apply. The court acknowledged that improper use of non-faulty tack or equipment could, under some circumstances, amount to negligence, which often is another state liability law exception. That might include placing cavaletti behind a horse where the poles could not be seen, the court said, but that was not the situation in this case. The horse initially was facing the cavaletti, and having a horse turn away, back up, and fall over the poles were inherent risks of riding.
Which definition of "faulty tack" is correct, the expansive reading in Maine or the narrow interpretation in New Jersey?